When choosing the right dining table and chairs, there are no rigid rules. Think about mixing and matching pieces instead of plunking down money for a perfectly matched set, experts say.
"These days, we see people choosing opposite styles for the table and the chairs," says Amy Panos, a Des Moines, Iowa-based deputy editor at Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "It makes the room interesting and gives it personality. Everybody wants a very personalized, 'Oh I threw this together and it represents my style' look.' There are no 'I have tos.' There are only 'I want tos.'"
So when my husband and I recently picked out a new dining table and chairs at a local furniture shop, we went for a rectangular walnut table with a built-in leaf, and then chose 1960s-style chairs with curving wooden backs and green upholstery. We wanted the table to fit in with our vintage and midcentury modern-style furniture, and the chairs to be chic and comfy.
Think about your style, budget, the size of your dining area, how you like to entertain, and how you're going to use the table and chairs — are they just for eating, or also for homework, kids' projects, work?
Start by measuring the space, whether it's a breakfast nook, kitchen, large dining room or small college dorm.
"You have to have room to pull the chairs in and out, and be able to move around the table," says Panos, who suggested leaving 36 to 48 inches on all sides, away from walls and other furniture.
"Get something you love, that really speaks to you," she says. "Are you in it for the long haul, to have that table as an heirloom, or are you someone who frequently wants to change your look?"
Tables and chairs can range from a $200 wooden dining table and $30 wooden chairs from IKEA, to $250 to $800 tables at chains Cost Plus World Market and Crate & Barrel. Higher-end tables can cost thousands of dollars at boutique stores, antique stores and upscale outlets such as Restoration Hardware. Shipping furniture bought online can also bump up the cost, Panos says.
At Sunbeam Vintage, a Los Angeles store that sells new, on-site handmade, imported and vintage furniture, owner Ebee Martinez, 37, walked between tables and chairs of different shapes and sizes packed deep into the high-ceilinged shop. The store specializes in midcentury modern and midcentury modern-inspired pieces, as well as '70s-style Hollywood glam chrome, gold, copper and brass accented tables and chairs, which are making a comeback, Martinez says.
Tables start at $350, and prices generally hover between $750 and $950, with chairs around $250 each. The shop sometimes sells pricier items, such as a $2,500 dining table made of acacia wood, with steel legs.
"If you have a small space, a glass top dining table is really fabulous, since it creates the illusion of space," says Martinez. "In smaller spaces, pedestal tables — tables that don't have legs in the corners, but only in the middle, like a tulip table — work well, and allow a lot of knee space. You can basically put any kind of chair around that table."
Based on a late '50s design by architect and designer Eero Saarinen, tulip tables — with a smooth central column resembling a water drop — have become popular. Sunbeam Vintage carries reproduced versions with wood, white laminate, Formica, marble, and less pricy faux-marble round, oval and rectangle tops.
"The white-top dining tables provide a contrast if you have a lot of wood in your house," says Martinez. "Don't be afraid of color. You can go light on the table, colorful on the chairs, and vice versa. Comfortable chairs, we've observed, usually have rounded backs. Your back kind of curves into it."
Upholstered dining chairs can also be great accent chairs in a living room, she says.
Getting a table with a built-in leaf makes sense if you'll be holding both cozy family dinners and Thanksgiving for 16 people, noted Panos. The built-in aspect means you don't have to take the leaf out and store it somewhere.
"In kitchen areas, we're seeing a lot more bench seats," Panos added. "You can have benches on the sides and chairs at the heads of the table. That way, you can fit more people and have that style contrast."
Of course dining tables are often used for much more than eating.
Panos, who has three kids, offered some quick tips to avoid art-project messes on the dining room table: Cover the table top with a soft, fitted mattress pad, she says, and use round cork placemats. Parents of small kids should choose a dining table with friendlier rounded edges, she suggested.
A veneered or laminate table is easier to clean, and cleaning products are available to help remove rings on wood, says Martinez.
"We believe that furniture is expression. It's like art," Martinez says. "People have fun with it. We have customers who are artistic, and want something unique."