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An informal approach to dining rooms Add to ...

How formal are you ... really? This is the big question I pose to most clients. Do you actually, truly, honestly need a "formal" separate dining room? Do you entertain on a regular basis and eat off the "good china" on all entertaining occasions?

The reason I ask is that I usually encounter resistance when I suggest taking down the wall between the kitchen and dining room to create a more open flow and better use of space. Homeowners tend to cling to the idea of having a "formal" dining room, yet they lead very casual lives.

Removing a section of wall doesn't mean that the dining room becomes cafeteria casual. I think you can maintain a sense of elegance and sophistication in your dining area while creating a space that actually works for your lifestyle. Opening the kitchen to the dining room really works in smaller houses, especially for young families who want to keep an eye on roaming youngsters.

Here are some suggestions:

MIX IT UP WITH FABRICS

If you're thinking about introducing some upholstery to the room, why not add more than one fabric? End chairs can be chosen to add a decorative accent to the room, so why not treat them to a stunning fabric befitting the king and queen who will be seated in them? Keep your choices for fabrics in the same colour family, but don't hesitate to have some fun. After all, you'll be eating, and likely spilling, on these chairs, so they'll need to be re-upholstered at some point. On that note, I'd suggest that you be practical on the price point so you don't feel the need to disown guests with a tendency to drop food on the furniture.

MOVE IT OFF CENTRE

There's no reason your table has to sit perfectly centred in the room (save for the simple fact that the junction box for your chandelier is located there, but that's easy to move). To make better use of the available space and create a better path to the wide doors I installed leading to the garden, I opted for a banquette pushed against the wall and chairs on the other sides of the table. The banquette is comfy and cushy, reminiscent of a restaurant, and able to accommodate extra guests if you're willing to make the squeeze. Now there's room to roam on the kitchen side, enough that I was able to create a bar area complete with stools for casual dining and cocktail chatter.

GO BIG OR DON'T BOTHER

Next to hanging art too high, under-scaled chandeliers are the most common decorating faux pas. Without seeing your dining room, it's hard to say exactly what size your chandelier should be, but I can give you some guidelines. A diameter of 24 inches is always too small, period. Somewhere in the range of 28 to 32 inches is likely better. Chances are, chandeliers with four to five arms are too small; six is likely the way to go. The diameter shouldn't be larger than the width of your table (or your tall guests will hit their heads when they get up).

HANG IT RIGHT

Hanging chandeliers too high is another no-no. (Oops, this is one more for the faux pas list.) This time I can give you the rule of thumb: The lowest point of you chandelier should be 30 to 36 inches above your tabletop. I tend to like them somewhere around 32 inches, but in this case the table will be slid in and out to allow guests to access the banquette, so I raised to the upper end of the rule book at 36. It may seem low when you are hanging it, but trust me, it's right!

SIT PRETTY AND BE COMFY

Whether you choose upholstered chairs or not, the only thing I care about it is that they be comfortable. Nothing ruins a good dinner party like bad chairs. If you find your guests wriggling in their seats as the hours pass, it's either a sign of dull conversation or uncomfortable chairs. Best get some new chairs and some fine wines for your next party, and you'll be the toast of the town.

DRESS UP YOUR WINDOWS

Whether or not privacy is an issue, I always opt for dining room drapes. I don't like black windows at night; they seem cold, hard and lifeless. Shimmery, silky drapes, on the other hand, dampen the noise of a lively dinner party, and catch the glow of light from your perfectly hung chandelier and your sparkly, candlelit tabletop. No matter if the occasion is formal or informal, your drapes will look like a perfectly fitted ball gown and will always be dressed for dinner.

DIM IT DOWN

In my house, every light is on a dimmer. Not everyone agrees with this approach, but the dining room switch is one that's not up for discussion. Every light in the dining room should be dimmable so you can set the table, create a dynamite meal, turn down the lights and dial up the mood.

Sarah Richardson is host and co-producer of Sarah's House and Design Inc. on HGTV ( http://www.hgtv.ca) and principal of Sarah Richardson Design ( http://www.sarahrichardsondesign.com).

Where to get things

Chandelier - Of Things Past, 416-256-9256, http://www.ofthingspast.com

Wall sconces - Universal Lamp, 416-787-8900, http://www.greatlighting.com

Drapery fabric/hardware - Designer Fabrics, 416-531-2810, http://www.designerfabrics.ca

Hardwood flooring - Barwood Flooring, 416-431-4800, http://www.barwoodfloors.com

Table base - Pottery Barn, http://www.potterybarn.ca

Dining bench - Sarah Richardson Design, http://www.sarahrichardsondesign.com

Dining chair frames - Chair Source, 905-761-8790, http://www.chairsource.ca

Spraying of chairs - Benjamen Refinishing, 416-745-2559

Cabinets - Global Views, http://www.globalviews.com

Artwork - Canvas Gallery, 416-532-5278, http://www.canvasgallery.ca

French doors - Loewen, http://www.loewen.com

Installation - Fieldstone Windows, 1-866-202-0286, http://www.fieldstonewindows.com

Wallpaper - Romo, http://www.romofabrics.com, available through Bilbrough and Co. Ltd., 416-960-1611

Paint colours - walls, "French white" (50YY73/075); ceiling and trim, "Natural white" (50YY83/029), all from ICI, http://www.iciduluxpaints.com

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