Dinner is Served

Photography by Stacey Brandford

Posted on Feb 10, 2011

What’s happening in your dining room? Is it being used and enjoyed for dinners with friends and families, special occasion meals and frequent gatherings? If you answered no, you’re not alone.
Dinner is Served

Now that many homes feature an eat-in kitchen, the separate dining room runs the risk of becoming the most underused (and sometimes under-decorated) space in the home. It’s my goal to change that. I like to think of the formal dining room as a special place where good times are had, milestones celebrated and occasions marked in the collective family history.

If you’ve got a standalone dining room that is divided from the rest of the home by walls and doors, it’s not that easy to repurpose said room, since it’s obvious to all that it’s intended sole purpose was for eating meals as a family.

So let’s talk about what you can do to turn that dinosaur of a dining room into a dynamite destination for dining.

Make A Trim Statement

When faced with a lack of personality and architectural features, you can start by amping up the appeal factor of the basic box. It doesn’t need to be expensive or extravagant, but you may find that a simple addition of trim details can help create a more formal look. Taking cues from the existing plaster crown moulding, we selected a chair rail and panel profile to be installed on the lower portion of all the walls, enabling us to apply a three-colour paint scheme. Historically, a chair rail was installed at 28 by 36 inches above the floor to prevent the backs of chairs from damaging the plaster. However, if that’s not your primary concern, you can select your own height as it suits your purposes. I opted to install the rail at 42 inches so it would not interfere with the height of the sideboard we chose (you might want to select your sideboard before committing to a final height).

Dinner is Served

Start With A Luxurious Accent

A bland room with lacklustre appeal needs pizzazz and texture, something that feels fancy and exuberant. I’ve always loved the rich detail of embroidered silk for the saturated colours and lyrical patterns offered on a rainbow assortment of backgrounds. Since I’m practical by nature, this would never pass as a main upholstery fabric (plus it tends to cost about $75 or more per yard so it’s out of the budget for many), but it’s an interesting, if unexpected, choice for the outside back of your chairs (which won’t fall prey to the same wear and tear as the seats, unless your typical dinner party fare is wings coated in sticky sauce).

Then Add A Graphic Touch

With the goal of lightening, brightening and invigorating this little room and turning it into a jewel box of sorts, Tommy and I made a dramatic departure from the floral silk when selecting the main upholstery fabric and opted for a mustard toned geometric on a cotton ground. Why, you ask? The yellow is actually found in the embroidered fabric and offered the opportunity to make a youthful and cheery statement (it was also easy-care cotton and easy on the budget).

Work With What You’ve Got

In some cases, the only way to get gleaming hardwood floors is to rip out what you’ve got and start fresh, but it’s not always necessary. If your floorboards are in good condition and only suffer from an unfortunate shade of stain, it’s an easy job to sand and refinish your floors for a fraction of the price of installing new. It can be done as a DIY project if you’re really handy, but at a price of $900, we opted to leave this job to the pros (my mom and I still get the giggles over our refinishing experience 15 years ago …).

Dinner is Served

Get Instant History

Some of us have china and crystal, silver and linen in spades, passed down from grandmothers and great aunts, and some of us don’t. It doesn’t matter how much I have, I’ll always crave more! The good news is that if your china cabinet isn’t overflowing with an abundance of hand-me-down table settings you adore, you can amass a veritable abundance of exceptional beauty for a pauper’s price. I picked up intricately detailed silver-plate cutlery for $175 (a setting for 12!), vividly hand painted fine bone china with a funky hot pink floral border that’s anything but G-ma (that’s short for Grandma) for $375 (a setting for 8), and a whole collection of silver-plate serving pieces and candlesticks ranging in price from $10 and up (with sources that varied from a pawn shop on Church Sreet to a consignment store). Admittedly, when I got married, I registered for all the fixings from fine china purveyor William Ashley to further embellish my dinner party accoutrements, but if you’re looking to outfit your dining room with beautiful goods at bargain prices, buy used (and celebrate the fabulous finds).

The Save

Our furniture odyssey started off in the basement of one of my all-time fave consignment shops (rarely have I ever left without a variety of treasures … but that’s another story). A set of six shield back chairs with vintage pedigree and great lines at a bargain price of less than $35 apiece were too good a deal to pass up, even if they needed some love to whip them into shape. Since there aren’t many places to make a statement in a small dining room, I’m always on the lookout for chairs, which are comfortable and elegant, with shapely lines to add visual interest. This set fit the bill perfectly.

Dinner is Served

The Splurge

In my opinion, the downfall of many dining rooms lies in the furniture. I’ve never been a fan of suites of furniture (comprised of matching chairs, sideboard and table), as I feel they offer a look of too much uniformity and sameness.

If you consider the duration of the average dinner party, your guests will likely be seated for increments measured in hours, not minutes. During pauses in conversation (of which I hope there are very few), your guests’ eyes may wander around the room to take in the decor and surroundings. When everything in sight is the same, there is no visual pleasure to delight in, no patterns to process, no textures to appreciate. My biggest complaint about new furniture, fresh off the boat from the Far East, is that it devalues the second your credit card is swiped for purchase. No matter how much you spend on new furniture, it’s worth a fraction of the sticker price once it crosses your threshold.

Vintage or, better yet, antique pieces (if bought well) will retains their value – perhaps even appreciate as time marches on. Never certain what we’ll find on our shopping adventures, Tommy and I hit up another favourite consignment destination and discovered a remarkable dining table with exceptionally beautiful wood grain on the top and a complementary (but not matching) Sheraton style sideboard for around $3,000 per piece. If you’re starting out and furnishing your home for the long haul, it makes sense to buy the best you can afford. (Tommy hoped the clients would not like the table and it would inevitably pass on to him, but alas, the table found a happy home with its new owners, who’ve already held dinners with friends and family)

Dinner is Served

The Signature Sarah

I like patterns and repetition. As a kid I toyed around with patterns of numbers … too much information, I admit, so I won’t go into detail. But I do have a penchant for repeating motifs and find that my eye tends to travel around a room, absorbing all the details and looking for linking elements. In this room I enjoy the way the shape of the shield back chairs works with the linking scroll pattern of the wallpaper, and the way the painted detail on the floor matches the corner of the mirror (unintentionally, but happily), and connects to the Greek key banding on the drapes and the square geometric pattern on the chairs.’

Ever a girl in search of visual beauty, I must admit that beauty, for me, lies in a certain amount of harmony and order. At least if the guests at dinner are bored, they can play “connect the dots” to see if they can find all the linking elements! My main decorating rule about dining rooms is that they can’t be too serious, and they need to help you have fun. (Why else would you go to the trouble of entertaining if you’re not going to have a great time?)


Wallpaper – Nina Campbell for Osborne & Little through Primavera Interior Furnishings Ltd. www.primavera.ca | Dining table, sideboard, chandelier, wall sconces & stool – Of Things Past www.ofthingspast.com | Chairs & flatware – Elegant Garage Sale www.elegantgaragesale.com | Upholstery + refinishing of dining chairs – Eurocraft Restoration Co. www.eurocraftrestoration.com | Yellow dining chair fabric, mirror, and placemats – inVU Drapery Company www.invudraperyco.com | Silk floral dining chair fabric – Trendy Fabrics www.trendyfabrics.com | Pair of yellow side chairs – Neat Things 416-778-9453 | Lacquer for chairs – Pro Glo Paints www.torontopaintstore.ca | Spraying of chairs – Benjamen Furniture Refinishing 416-745-2559 | Drapery fabric, pink velvet & piping on chairs – Designer Fabrics www.designerfabrics.ca | Aqua striped fabric – Greeff through Bilbrough & Co.www.bilbroughs.com | Wall panel mould & chair rail – Brenlo Ltd. www.brenlo.ca | Carpentry – Cameron Carpentry 705-441-0680 | Accent ribbon on drapes – Mokuba 416-504-5358 | Etched glassware, silver accessories, brass candlesticks – Around the Block www.aroundtheblock.com | Pink china set – Green’s Antiques www.greensantiques.com | Pink glassware – Anthropologie www.anthropologie.com | Rewiring of light fixture – Residential Lighting www.residentiallighting.com | Drapery hardware – Restoration Hardware www.restorationhardware.com | Painting – Captains Treasures www.captainstreasures.biz | Framed artwork – Art Interiors www.artinteriors.ca | Silver candlesticks – James McTamney & Co. Inc. www.mctamneys.com | Napkin embroidery – Dominion Regalia www.dominionregalia.com | Hardwood floor refinishing – Accurate Hardwood Flooring Inc. www.accuratehardwoodflooring.ca | Flowers – Jong Young Market 416-922-4421 | Para Paint Colours:From the Sarah Richardson Designer Palette for Para Paints www.sarahpaint.com | Ceiling – Buttercup (1/3 tint) – SR51 (P5051-41D) | Outside paneling – Oyster – SR3 (P5219-24) | Inside paneling – Fog – SR27 (P5214-44) | All trim & doors – Snowfall – SR29 (P5223-14D) | 

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