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Decked-Out Dining Rooms: Simple Touches Add Flair and Function

Each year during the holiday season, my family takes a picture around the dining room table before the turkey is carved. Some years are more crowded, other years we don scarves or paper crowns, and every year someone tries to outdo the others with a silly pose. These priceless pictures embody what the dining room represents: a beautiful area in which to enjoy the company and conversation of those most dear to us. There is something special about gathering friends and family for a lovely meal, and during the holiday season the dining room gets top billing.
For the holidays, we decorate our dining rooms to make them even more inviting, giving the room a good cleaning, and adding shimmering lights and decorations. But if you are like me, the dining room isn’t given nearly as much love and affection the rest of the year—often designated for storage, gift wrapping and sorting the mail. Rather than treat your dining room like a fair-weather friend, realize that it has much to offer all year round. With some added touches, you’ll want to spend more time around that dining room table, allowing you to fill your own photo albums with pictures of frequent gatherings of your favorite people, whatever the season.
Look Up
Take a cue from upscale restaurants. Dimly lit sconces, twinkling candles, and gorgeous chandeliers all set the tone for intimate conversation. The lighting in the dining room should add drama and elegance. The easiest way to achieve this is through a multi-faceted approach: decorative lighting (lamps on a sideboard, candles on a table), accent lighting (sconces, small fixtures to highlight artwork or other detailing) and ambient lighting (general, all-over light, like a chandelier). By combining all three light sources, you create atmosphere and ambience that encourages lingering and highlights the room’s best features. Don’t be afraid to add an unusual or interesting chandelier—whether it is modern cobalt-blue glass, vintage crystal, or wrought iron. Reflect on the style and colors of your room and use pieces which complement but don’t compete with the other elements of the room. Whatever you do, be sure to have your chandelier on a dimmer switch. You want to be able to lower the lights as you dine, but put them at full tilt to clean up after your last guest heads home.
Lighting isn’t the only thing you can do to spice up the top of your room. Many people use the ceiling as a canvas to add decorative elements. If you like a rustic look, add wooden beams. Romantic? Try painting a mural or a geometric design or pattern. For a bold approach, use a different color of paint. Dining rooms also often feature tray ceilings, crown moldings and other beautiful woodwork.
Sit Down, Look Down
Take the time to actually sit at your table and note how your guests may feel while seated. Are the chairs soft and comfortable, or hard and unforgiving? Stained from your children’s first Thanksgiving attempt at eating cranberry? Whatever the case may be, cleanliness and comfort are key elements. You want people to linger.
There are many options when it comes to seating. No longer do you have to purchase the chairs that match the table. Consider mixing and matching your seating options: upholstered armchairs, banquettes, wooden chairs, couches and settees are all acceptable options. Adding variety adds interest to the arrangement. Remember that while the host and hostess typically sit at the head of the table, it doesn’t have to be this way. Some may choose to sit in the middle of a long banquet table so that they can converse with all the guests.
The chairs themselves can be a focal point if you use a daring fabric (which will hide stains!). If you want the chairs to blend in, use softer hues and luxurious materials. Whether you are going with a standard chair or streamlining the room by adding a bench, be sure that the height of the chair is correct so that guests aren’t hunched over or reaching up to the table to eat.
Before you get up, take a moment to look at floor. The rug should anchor the room, adding warmth and depth to the space. It is appropriate to place rugs on hardwood, ceramic tile and wall-to-wall carpeting. Looking at rug options can be overwhelming, so think about your style and the feeling you want your dining room to convey. Traditional Oriental rugs are always in style, and provide an elegant and formal background. In today’s world, families often take a more contemporary approach and use a large floral, a bold stripe, or a simple sea grass rug instead. Whatever style you choose, you’ll be pleased to have the sound absorption if your party gets raucous.
Look Around
Paint color is always an important element and can quickly change the feel of your room. If you are ready to change things up, here are a few interesting “rules” to help guide you in choosing your color. If you want to be thought of as a premier chef, orange and red tones are said to increase hunger. Rather than having to offer Tums for dessert, consider painting your room in colors that are found in nature (think greens and browns) to aid digestion. Try to avoid certain colors such as purple, pink and blue as they are considered to be appetite suppressants. Bright, happy colors such as yellow provide the backdrop for a more social atmosphere. Rich shades tend to complement mahogany or cherry furniture. Lighter colors complement white-washed or glass furniture.
If you want to try something different, wallpaper is often used in a dining room—and it does not have to be your grandmother’s floral. Try a bold print, an exotic design or a textured sea grass. It will add elegance and panache to your dining backdrop.
After you choose the paint color, it is time to dress the windows. Any fabric in a room this full of hard-working furniture like tables and chairs needs warmth and softness from sources like window treatments. Valences, panels, solids, prints—the choices are endless! Have fun making a statement with your fabrics and style. Changing your window treatments is an affordable way to modify the look and feel of the room. Luxurious silk panels, fun fringe on a valence, and stately plantation shutters will transform your space and make the room more elegant or casual, depending upon the look you want.
When adorning your dining room walls, remember that mirrors, paintings and photographs should be hung a little lower than normal, so that it’s easy to see these beautiful items while seated at the table. Streamline the look by using similar frames and by grouping the items together.
Shelving, sideboards and cabinets are for more than just storage. Adorn their tops with your favorite accessories, again adding softness and texture in a room full of hard edges. Share your collectibles by carefully selecting those pieces that are interesting, unique and noteworthy. Keep your display clean by grouping items and by limiting the number shown. You do not have to achieve symmetry, but there needs to be a cohesive element and balance to the collection. Add height to the display by placing buffet lamps, floral arrangements, or tall vases filled with seasonal branches. Range in scale will add intrigue and dimension.
Spruce It Up
During the holiday season, take this opportunity to create beautiful seasonal arrangements. Bring nature indoors by focusing your display on natural elements—holly berries, magnolia leaves, pinecones, acorns, and swags of greenery. Create an arrangement of mint julep cups filled with hypericum berries and lemon leaves. Make tree-shaped topiaries from tight groups of carnations; put cloves in oranges and stack them on a cake stand with greenery. The fragrance will only enhance your senses as you linger around the table with lively conversation. Or show off your collection of Santa Claus figurines, dreidels, or shiny silver bells by using them to create a centerpiece for the table or sideboard.
In this season of holiday cheer, try hanging shiny ornaments, crystal beads, elegant ribbons or fresh garland and greenery from your chandelier to add a festive flair to the top of your room. To change the look of your seating for the holidays, it’s easy to add slipcovers, generous bows that wrap around the chair back, or mini wreaths dangling from the back. These are charming, affordable ways to add dimension and beauty to the room. Remember these ideas throughout the year, too; often these touches will work for other holidays and celebrations too (think red bows for a special Valentine’s Day meal, for example).
Finally, if you have the space, consider placing a decorated Christmas tree, large or small, in the dining room. If space won’t allow for a tree, try hanging wreaths adorned with beautiful ribbon in the windows. Either way your guests will enjoy the view.
With a few of these small changes, you can have a polished room that you’ll want to use often — more often than during the holidays, and more than just to sort the mail. With a decked-out dining room, you’ll be looking for reasons to invite people over to your house for a memorable evening. Be sure to have your camera nearby so that you can capture the beauty of the room and the happiness exuding from your guests as they spend time in this little-used room.

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