Setting a dining table with mismatched dishes and glasses is a practice that style maven Martha Stewart has popularized, as have magazines touting personal style. But what about dining in a room where tables, chairs and sideboards aren't part of a matched set?
One of the last bastions of suite-style, the dining room is assuming a '90s eclecticism. Even traditional furniture manufacturers have broken out of the cookie-cutter mold, and they're now mixing up finishes and even materials and styles.
"Personality decorating has moved into the dining room," says Heather Paper, editor of Better Homes & Gardens' Decorating magazine. "People no longer feel they have to buy a mahogany table and eight mahogany chairs. They may team a pine table with six painted chairs and introduce an armoire with still another painted finish. It makes the room much more interesting."
Of course, the concept of marrying different woods and even styles is hardly new or revolutionary. Antique collectors have done it forever, as they assemble rooms over time, blending furniture spanning a variety of styles, centuries and cultures.
The best interior designers also have mastered the art of melding, pulling together from traditional and contemporary sources as well as creating one-of-a-kind pieces crafted by artisans to their specifications. Even executive offices, where at the high end many of the furnishings are the product of prominent architects and interior designers, have been a resource for residential dining rooms.
Postmodern architect Michael Graves, for example, designed a bird's-eye maple table with mother-of-pearl inlays and six massive fluted columnar legs for the board room. The limited-edition, $30,000 table was snapped up as an art piece by upscale homeowners who teamed it with everything from Biedermeier to high tech and Spinneybeck leather.
But many designers often build from what homeowners already have in the dining room.
Chicago interior designer Shelly Handman inherited a built-in buffet of little design consequence when he purchased his city loft. He changed the hardware, added a stone top, and then purchased a glass-topped table with steel base.
Because he didn't want to wait for some metal-framed chairs to be upholstered to his specifications, he took what the manufacturer had -- four yellow and four white chairs. He had planned to reupholster everything to match, but he so enjoyed the dramatic effect of having one side a saucy yellow and the other a creamy white that he left them alone.
Such unusual dining rooms have an obvious contemporary spirit. One way to bridge modern and classical styles is the use of upholstered chairs with traditional tables.
Donghia teamed a classical, blond, round table with a tamboured pedestal and ebony base, with chairs patterned in black and white giant triangles and edged in alternating black and white banding. The harlequin-like design is smart and sophisticated.
Designer Jay Spectre drew from some traditional elements, such as delicately flared cabriole legs, for the design of a handsome black lacquer table for Century Furniture. Mr. Spectre adorned the table with gold leaves, which look as though they've fallen into position. His upholstered chairs, with their tight, rounded seatbacks and inverted pleated skirts, are a graceful accompaniment.
Architecture has been a catalyst in the design of more eclectic dining rooms. In the late '70s and early '80s, when living spaces appeared to be shrinking, some space planners were predicting the demise of the formal dining room.
In existing homes dating to the turn of the century through the '40s, some dining spaces were simply reclaimed, converted to studies, libraries, family rooms or nurseries, because it was more practical. Design magazines also showed how formal dining could take place in other rooms of the house.
Indeed, the space was disappearing from some new construction as dining areas were incorporated into less formal great rooms or brought into expanded kitchens. That created a demand for more casual furnishings, but pieces that still showed pizazz and could be dressed up for special occasions.
Ethan Allen, which used to be identified with Colonial or early American style, has paraded such sophisticated concepts before its customers. One striking image from Ethan Allen shows a neoclassically inspired table from its "Medallion" collection, teamed with four armless skirted chairs, dressed in a snappy plaid, and photographed in front of a fireplace in a living room.
But formal dining rooms once again appear to be in demand, and they are no longer reserved for holidays or, as interior designer-author Mary Gilliatt once put it, the kind of rooms that "have a woeful habit of looking formal . . . as if eating were a duty rather than a pleasure."