The mix-and-not-match philosophy of design -- better known as eclectic style -- has been embraced by an increasing number of consumers, and the dining room is overripe for a little punch.
So some furniture manufacturers are spicing up a category that's been, well, sedentary.
Seats are hot. Benches and cozy banquettes are joining chairs around the dining table. And chairs are looking less like clones of one another. Wicker and rattan are adding a textural note to smooth wood frames. Leather and embroidered silks offer plush and luxe cover-ups. Different frame styles are coming together in harmony like the ingredients in a finely balanced entree.
Most of us have grown up with dining furniture sold as "suites" -- that is, table, chairs and a china cabinet and / or sideboard, all in a singular style and finish. So when there's more company than matched chairs allow, there's a scramble to find seating, usually plain folding chairs or leftovers from other rooms that create a less-than-appetizing grouping.
But just as some hosts set a stylish table with mismatched dishes and glasses, sometimes disparity can work to design advantage. For more adventurous consumers, some manufacturers are offering additional seating options within a grouping -- matching benches, and chairs in more than one style. And some smart salespeople are pulling seating from different collections that work together.
We've happily discovered in other rooms, such as the kitchen, that we can shake things up, teaming stained woods with a painted finish and integrating vintage pieces with something fresh.
"People have absolutely gotten away from matching everything in their homes," says Mark McMenamin, senior editor of In Furniture, a monthly trade publication. "This also dovetails with a lot of lifestyle trends. There's more entertaining, and people see the meal more as a gathering time.
"They want an eclectic feel that adds a little warmth," he says. "Communal seating (such as benches and banquettes) is very popular. So are the kind of furnishings that let people relax, linger at the table."
Enhancing the table
A little relief goes a long way, especially when it comes to chairs. The dining table, the focal point, is as enhanced when framed by diversified seating as by an engaging group of guests. Although the mixed seating idea doesn't sit well with some, as though akin to wearing a pair of unmatched shoes, high-end designers have a long history of trying it and liking it a lot.
For her Chicago home, interior designer Dale Carol Anderson designed a sinuous 12-foot-long upholstered banquette to frame a draped table and four French iron chairs made in the 1920s.
"I wanted a more intimate, European experience," Anderson explains. "It's very cozy. It works for cocktails or long, comfortable dinners." For others, mixing it up wasn't by design. It was serendipity.
When Shelly Handman ordered eight chairs for his Chicago loft, the manufacturer could accommodate only four in his choice of natural upholstery. The other four were available in canary yellow. He ordered anyway.
"It was an impetuous buy," the designer says, admitting that he intended to reupholster everything to match. But he so loved the drama the chairs created in a virtually all-white space that he left them as they were, lining up the four white chairs on one side and the four yellow chairs on the other side of his table.
Handman's chairs were contemporary, but eclectic seating suits all decorating styles.
The easiest way to mix it up is to vary the finishes. Chairs don't all have to be the same wood, stain or paint. The pair of head chairs can be different. Or the side chairs can alternate. What's important is that the finishes -- matte, lacquer, crackle, aged or weathered -- go together stylistically. For example, don't introduce a dainty art deco glossy frame to heftier arts-and-crafts oak. In this case, opposites do not attract. For cues, study home furnishings magazines and catalogs or go to furniture Web sites to view room settings.
Having fun with color
Color can spark the imagination. Some designers have lacquered classic Chippendale chairs in an unexpected hue such as lipstick red or turquoise for splendid effect.