Designer 101: How to Choose a Dining Room Table

Design expert Kenneth Wingard shares his tips for choosing the right dining room table.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

The choice of dining tables in today’s market is impressive. From tables that come as part of a full formal set, to custom-made modern marvels, to old farm tables re-purposed for kitchen dining — you can find something to fit almost any need. So, aside from sheer personal style, how do you choose a table that’s right for you? You’ve got to look at three factors besides style: size, shape and function.

1. Size
Two of the most common errors in choosing a dining table are selecting one that’s too large (you can barely get around the table) or too small (it floats in a corner of a space and is barely noticed). Determining what size is right for you is a two-pronged process: what size works best for your space, balanced with what size works best for your family.

Let’s start with the former. A table should be large enough to visually fill and command the room, but it should still leave at least 24 inches in smaller eating areas, 36 inches in standard dining rooms and 48 inches in grander rooms between the table and the nearest wall.

Width: Any table wider than 48 inches is going to make reaching to the center a challenge, so choose something narrower. That all being said, you must consider family size as well. You need about 24 inches of table edge per person and remember to take away spots that are blocked by table legs. So, if you are a family of five, make sure you have 120 inches of dining space around the table.

In other words — and to save you a little geometry — a 36-inch-diameter round table will seat four and a 36-inch-by 72-inch rectangular table should seat eight.

Now, knowing those pieces of information, you need to find the size that works for you. If you are a family of two and only have one large formal dining area, the 6-foot table that works well in the space is going to be incredibly uncomfortable to dine at every night. If that’s the case, then consider a smaller pedestal table with two large upholstered armchairs that will make the overall dining grouping visually larger.

Conversely, if you only have room for a 48-inch square table, but have a family of six, you may need to look at adaptable tables with drop down leaves.

2. Shape
The actual shape of the tabletop and the corresponding legs can have a huge effect not only on the look of the table in the space, but also on how it works.

Rectangle: Perhaps the most traditional of dining table shapes, it easily anchors a room. However, it is not very flexible where seating is concerned — usually fitting a finite number of people. Usually built with four legs or a trestle, be sure to take these into consideration when determining how many it will seat.

Oval: Where space is a little tight, the rounded corners of an oval can help physically ease congestion as well as visually lighten a room. The shape is useful when squeezing in an extra chair is necessary, as the number of seats at the table can easily be redistributed. The most versatile versions have a pedestal base, but four leg models are also available.

Square: Often found in contemporary or Asian styles, it’s a clean, fresh shape to use and works very well in square dining areas. The huge limitation is the number of people it can seat. I have found that small ones always feel odd when less than four people are seated and are impossible to seat more than four. Ones that are large enough to seat two or more people on each side quickly get too wide to function efficiently and feel odd if there’s not exactly eight or 12 people being seated.

A great option is a square table that has leaves to transform it into a rectangle, thus getting the beautiful symmetry of the square but the functionality of a rectangle when needed. Having legs versus a pedestal is rarely an issue in that you don’t seat people at the corners.

Round: This is perhaps my favorite shape — especially when combined with a pedestal. One of the only shapes where three people can sit in a comfortable formation, it has the flexibility to easily seat an even or odd number of people. With no head of the table, it makes for easy conversation as everyone is within speaking distance of everyone else. It works well in smaller dining areas, but doesn’t always translate to larger dining rooms. When you increase the scale, it quickly becomes too wide and can become unstable if it’s pedestal based. A good solve for this is having a round table with leaves so it can expand to an oval.

3. Material
Surprisingly, dining tables aren't available in a huge array of materials. Unless opting for an unusual antique or a custom piece, the materials are fairly standard, but are still quite different from both a visual and care perspective. In choosing a material and finish, remember to keep your overall style in mind. A dining table can be a relatively large piece in a room, so you want to make sure the material (in addition to the shape and finish) work well with other pieces in your home creating an overall flow.

Wood: The traditional choice for dining room tables, wood can be finished in any shade or color from highly polished cherry to rustic re-furbished oak. The highest quality tables are solid wood, creating lasting heirlooms that can easily be refinished or repaired if there are nicks or surface damage.

Veneer: A less expensive option than solid wood where a thin layer of real wood is glued to a base of other material — usually plywood or fiberboard. These veneers can be easily damaged by water — creating warping — so care must be used and refinishing multiple times isn’t usually an option.

Painted Finish: These can range from a modern glossy black to a rustic country white. An easy DIY option to save a formally unloved piece, a new paint finish provides a huge number of options from matching other pieces in a room to create a statement.

Glass-Topped: The glass eliminates visual weight, making it a good option for tight spaces. The top can be paired with any number of bases making them work with many styles. The glass makes it usable without worry of staining, water or heat damage.

Tip: Glass is a great option for kids if paired with the round or oval shape as you don’t need to worry about spills or errant watercolor paints during art time.

So by determining the size, shape and material that works for your home, you can easily narrow down your dining table options. Once you’ve done that, picking a table that will work for you should be a breeze. I’ll await my dinner invitation!

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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