Designer 101: What to Consider in Dining Room Decor

Designer 101: What to Consider in Dining Room Decor

Kenneth Wingard explains how to make the right design choices for your dining room.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

The dining room, as our parents knew it, may be an endangered species: The formal room with the dark wood table and eight formidable chairs arranged around it like soldiers; the cabinet with great grandmother’s china waiting for the two times a year it gets used; the crystal chandelier that was religiously dusted the same two times a year. My mother still has such a room, as do her friends. However, in more recently built homes you may find a great room with space for a table or a kitchen that opens into a family eating area.

Our lives have changed and the way we enjoy our meals as a family has changed. So in designing your home, you really need to put thought into the way your family has meals, the way you entertain and the way you spend the holidays.

There’s no point in dedicating precious square footage to a formal dining room just because your mother did, if you will never use it.

There are many options for creating dining areas, so be sure to create one that actually works with the way you live. I like to define people’s meal habits into four main groups and from there, make dining area recommendations. When planning your dining area, be realistic about what group, or groups, you fall into.

1. The Every Day Diners

: Every evening, the family (whether that be two or eight) sits down around the table to share the day’s events, remark over the potatoes and young children try to feed the dog their peas while no one’s looking.

Needs: A dedicated full-size dining table that is easily maneuverable and maintained — with chairs that can withstand wear, tear and spaghetti sauce. This also means easy access to plates, flatware and linens.

2. The Entertainers

: During the week meals are quick, easy and on the run. Come the weekend, you take the opportunity for large meals with family and friends, whether that is sit down or buffet.

Needs: The space should have the flexibility to work for four or 24. A convertible table that works for homework and bill paying during the week, but can easily and quickly be converted to family dining come Friday or a buffet on Saturday. Storage for the room’s different activities or decorations can be easily stored and retrieved.

3. The Holiday Diners

: Your average weekday meals are casual, but three times a year the extended family gathers at your house for a traditional feast complete with grandma’s gravy boat and the family silver. As seldom as this happens, it is an important and meaningful part of your family tradition.

Needs: The practicality of the space is less important than the ability to hold large groups in a festive atmosphere. This can be in a dedicated dining room or a space, such as a family room, that is converted just for the occasion. You need a table that can be small or multi-functional most of the year, but can transform into a traditional table during the holidays. Access to dinnerware and serving pieces on a daily basis is not important, but being able to sit a large crowd around the same table a few times a year is.

4. The Eat-On-The-Go’ers

Type: Life is busy with work and school, everyone is on different schedules, meals are served from the stove. If the family does get together it’s over pizza or delivery. If it’s a special occasion, reservations at your go-to restaurant are promptly made.

Needs: If your home has a formal dining room, perhaps it’s best serving a different purpose: home office, den, library? If this is the case, don’t forget you still need to provide a place to have meals, as haphazard as they may be. Stools can be tucked under the counter, or a small table in the corner of the kitchen or a multi-purpose table in the family room will serve you best.

Once you understand your actual habits and needs, take a look at different dining furniture options. Many of them are adaptable and can suit multiple needs. Once you are familiar with what’s available, you can determine which combinations will work for your particular dining lifestyle.


Extension Table: A traditional and very useful table. The table goes from a modest size to banquet size by adding leaves that are either stored within the table or, as in our house, under the guest bed. You can then have a table that is the appropriate size for the dining room or the immediate family, but when needed can stretch from wall to wall to fit every aunt and uncle.

Great for: The “Every Day Diners” and “Entertainers.”

Drop Leaf Table: Available in both formal and casual styles, this table has a fixed square or rectangular center and leaves on either side that stay attached, but are hinged to drop down. One or both leaves can be raised when needed and are held in place by sliding legs or concealed brackets. These tables can be also kept against a wall to save space.


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Perfect for: Small families or couples who are “Entertainers” and “Eat-On-The-Go’ers.”

Tilt Top Table: Once very popular, the tops of these tables go from horizontal to vertical when a latch is released from underneath. Often round, they are meant to live pushed up against the wall and taking up very little space until needed. Once put into action they cut quite a nice figure

Great for: The “Holiday Diners: to pull off an elegant meal.

Swivel Top Table: These tables have a top that is hinged in the middle and usually stays folded over on itself. When needed, the table folds open and the top rotates 180 degrees so the existing legs can support the entire table. These tables work well has a hallway or entrance table and then can become a dining table when needed.

Great for: People who don’t have a dedicated dining room, but are the “Holiday Diner” or “Eat-On-The-Go’ers” of the group.

I used one of these in my first apartment and could convert my narrow little hallway into a stunning dining room.


China Cabinet
: A cabinet with drawers and/or doors below to hold linens and serving dishes with a glass-fronted cabinet above to display china. While very practical for storage, it is most definitely associated with a dining room, so if you need your space to be multifunctional, this piece may not be for you.

Buffet or Sideboard: Designers will endlessly argue the stylistic differences between these two pieces, but today they are almost indistinguishable. No taller than waist high, and often lower, these long pieces of furniture are meant to hold food on top and have drawers or cabinets underneath for linens and serving pieces. Both have short or no legs and can be accompanied by shelving above.

A similar piece found in a living room or den would be a credenza. They are very useful and multifunctional especially when a dining area is serving varied uses. They can house board games, mail, homework supplies as well as the standard turkey platter. The tops can hold a pizza box or be laid out for the full Thanksgiving. They can be configured to be a small office when not dishing out meals.

If you’ve got the space, you can’t go wrong with this piece as it really can serve (pun intended) so many types of people and needs. It works whether you’re pairing it with a large or small table, just make sure you have enough room for it in the room without blocking access or flow.

Server: Not as long as a buffet but with longer legs and only drawers, a server is meant to hold dishes before and after they are served. They’re a convenient place to hold flatware and linens, modern versions are also designed to hold drinks. They take up less square footage than a buffet so are great options for smaller spaces.

If not being used as a server, they can hold beverages, mail or your laptop. Traditionally, you’d have both a server and a buffet and if you’ve got a large, traditional dining room, having both is absolutely lovely. If you don’t have the room, choose one based on the size of the room.

Don’t try to squeeze in a buffet when the amount of space would be better for a server — what you loose in a little storage space you will gain in you and your family’s ability to move easily around a non-overcrowded room.

In addition to those standard dining room pieces you can incorporate all sorts of other nontraditional pieces into your dining area. The goal is to determine how you live and design a dining area that will work for you — so you may actually use it more than twice a year.

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to think about how to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Get to know Kenneth here.

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