Dining at restaurants has always been about more than the food — one of the joys of going out is the opportunity to enjoy a new and different environment.
At home, the most ambitious hosts have long sought to create atmospheric dining rooms that offer a similar sense of occasion. And at a time when many of us are spending the majority of our evenings at home, that’s especially valuable.
“If ever a room was meant to be dramatic, it would be the dining room,” said Ken Fulk, an interior designer with offices in San Francisco and New York. “Dining rooms are all about entertainment, they’re typically used at nighttime, and they’re always used at special occasions.”
Even if there will be fewer guests around the table this holiday season, as we keep our distance during the pandemic, an appealing dining room can offer a daily escape and make any meal feel a little more special.
Choose Bold Colors
Much like a powder room, a dining room is a good place to paint the walls and ceiling a bold color you love but worry might be overwhelming in a space where you spend more time, like the living room.
“If you want drama, that’s how you get it very inexpensively: with paint,” said Jan Showers, a Dallas-based interior designer whose latest book, “Glamorous Living,” was published in September.
For the dining room in a historic home in Austin, Texas, Ms. Showers covered the walls, ceiling and trim in a deep navy blue. “People think dark colors are going to make the room look smaller,” Ms. Showers said. “Well, that’s not true. Dark colors actually make a room look larger, because the corners recede.”
The New York-based interior designer Alexa Hampton also sometimes uses dark colors in dining rooms. In an apartment she recently designed in Manhattan, she painted the dining room walls above white wainscoting a “really deep, boozy plum color, in high gloss,” she said. Paired with pink and purple paper lanterns and a rug saturated with similar colors, she noted, “the room became more of a folly.”
Mr. Fulk is a proponent of blasting walls with vibrant colors like peacock blue and grassy green. “Dining rooms can have exuberant colors,” he said. “Look at Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s dining room was actually crazy, bright yellow.”
Add a Graphic Punch or Appealing Texture
A daring paint color isn’t the only way to give walls extra appeal. Many designers view the dining room as a good place to use statement-making wallpaper.
For a dining room in New Orleans that Ms. Hampton said was previously a “black hole” of dark brown furniture, she lightened the mood by installing custom Gracie wallpaper depicting branching trees that grow from the floor toward the ceiling, as well as birds and flowers. “It has an organic quality” that enlivens the room, she said. “Another thing about wallpaper with pattern is that it alleviates the need to find artwork.”
Mr. Fulk sometimes goes one step further and commissions artists to paint scenic murals on the walls. For his own house in Provincetown, Mass., he recruited painter Rafael Arana to wrap the dining room with a mural of the town’s harbor. “I wanted to have something with some soul, opinion and depth,” Mr. Fulk said. “You can live in a painting. It’s something really wonderful, and it isn’t always cost prohibitive. There are so many artists who would love that commission.”
If pattern isn’t your thing, consider adding texture with a wallcovering like grasscloth or wood paneling.
Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, the married principals of Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, have conceived numerous destination dining rooms for New York restaurants. For their own dining room in Montauk, N.Y., they added tambour wood panels from Surfacing Solution, which resemble rounded vertical slats. “We wanted that warm tone of the wood,” Ms. Standefer said. “It just creates a very warm shell for the table to be in.”
Mix the Furniture
Once upon a time, a popular way to furnish a dining room was with a matching set of furniture — identical chairs around a coordinating table. Now that a more casual vibe prevails in many homes, it’s not uncommon for designers to mix contrasting chairs and tables, and to introduce other types of seating as well, for a more laid-back feeling with extra visual appeal.
“I love having benches in a dining room,” said James Huniford, a New York-based interior designer whose new book, “At Home,” features a long table with four benches on the cover. “It gives that sense of being able to have an easy conversation with the people who are there next to you or across from you.”
Mr. Huniford often mixes chairs and benches around a rectangular table. On occasion, he has used a settee or small sofa on one side of the table.
“It’s a much more relaxed sensibility,” he said, and it helps the dining room serve additional purposes, like providing a place for family games or working from home.
“Every dining room deserves a great mirror,” Mr. Fulk said. “Sometimes, we’ll use a crazy antique palace mirror we find and lean it against the wall. Other times, it’s an entire wall of antiqued mirror.”
Mirrors can help guests see each other better, he noted, and when strategically placed, can bring desirable views from windows deeper into the room. For extra drama, he suggested, consider a colored mirror. “It’s certainly time for smoked mirror, à la 1970s,” he said, or gold- or rose-tinted mirrors.
Ms. Showers hung some mirrors to create an optical illusion in the dining room of her country house south of Dallas. On either side of an intricately detailed 1920s mirror, she installed floor-to-ceiling mirrors flanked by curtains that give the impression of enormous windows.
“I did a little smoke and mirrors — literally,” Ms. Showers said. “It expands the room.”
Control the Light
The dining room is no place to wash the entire area with overhead light. A chandelier or pendant lamp above the table is important for illuminating the dining surface, but it shouldn’t be the only fixture in the room.
“Having just a chandelier doesn’t work,” Ms. Showers said. “If you’ve ever been in a dressing room where all the lighting is overhead, you look in the mirror and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I just aged 10 years.’”
To help everyone look their best, she said, “you always need to have adequate eye-level lighting.” That can be achieved with sconces, floor lamps in the corners of a room or table lamps on a buffet.
“You want shades that provide ambient light,” Ms. Showers said, so look for those made with translucent material rather than opaque shades that direct light toward the floor and ceiling.
Ms. Hampton is a fan of mounting picture lights above framed pieces of art for a gentle glow that shows off favorite paintings.
Wherever possible, dining room lamps should be controlled with dimmers, she said, so they can be cranked up during the day and dimmed at night. “You have to have it capable of being set to sexy dining light,” she said.
And don’t forget the candles. Ms. Standefer likes to illuminate the table with tapers at various heights. (Her firm has designed its own collection of candlesticks, offered in eight mixable heights at Roman and Williams Guild, for that purpose.)
Sometimes she puts votive candles in repurposed glasses. “I love when things do double duty,” she said. “Put a little water in the bottom, along with a tea candle or votive, and use them as a basic lantern on your table,” she said. “And then if you have extra guests, use them as drinking glasses.”
Accessorize With Abandon
Interesting accessories can make any meal feel special.
If you don’t love the look of your table, consider adding a runner or tablecloth. “I am still a lover of a tablecloth, even though people say it’s old-fashioned,” Ms. Standefer said.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, she added — she often uses large pieces of plain linen. “I think it’s a beautiful way to give your table a different quality.”
For a little pattern, Mr. Fulk sometimes uses blankets as tablecloths.
On top, “you can make a meadow,” Ms. Standefer said, with a series of bud vases or collected bottles — or, in a pinch, old wine bottles — filled with inexpensive greenery.
“You don’t spend a lot on the flowers,” she said. “You can literally take, like, a piece of grass or a piece of dill you buy at the grocery store,” and put one stalk in each vessel.
“When you have eight vessels and all those little stalks,” she said, “it makes a garden on your table.”
For dinnerware, Mr. Fulk suggested setting the table with antique decorative plates and colored glassware rather than the minimalist white ceramics that have become so popular in recent years. “I love to mix it up and give the dining table a collected feel,” he said, noting that he might use Limoges porcelain or antique transferware on a table in a contemporary room, for an unexpected visual twist.
“A great way to dress up your dining room without changing the décor is to change the tabletop,” he said.
And don’t fall into the trap of saving the fine china for special occasions, he added. “If the moment we’re in has taught us anything, it’s to use the good stuff,” he said. “Every moment matters.”