With the holidays approaching, have you thought about how you’ll accommodate all of your guests when they come for dinner?
If you’re expecting a big crowd, a small table with four chairs won’t cut it — unless you’re OK with asking people to stand while they eat. But, if you have enough space for a monstrous table capable of seating more than a dozen people, it can feel disconcertingly large and lonely the rest of the year.
The best solution for a dining space that works for dinners big and small? Design it with flexibility in mind, by considering how the seating options can expand and contract.
“So many times, my clients say, ‘Oh, you have to do the dining room so it can sit 16 people,’” said Vicente Wolf, an interior designer in New York. “My first question is always, ‘How often do you need that?’ Why spend the money, take up the space and create this environment where you look in and it’s never inviting for dinner on a daily basis?”
Instead, Mr. Wolf uses tables that can grow or be repositioned, and helps his clients plan creative seating options when friends and families come over. The goal is to make a dining space that can comfortably hold a big group but is inviting enough to use every day.
He and other interior and event designers shared advice on how to do that.
Plan the Table(s)
Unless you live in a castle, a boardroom-size dining table probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. One time-tested solution to the challenge of entertaining groups of various sizes is to use an expandable table with multiple leaves that allow the length to be changed as needed. But that isn’t the only option.
Mr. Wolf sometimes furnishes dining rooms with a pair of identical square tables on casters. Most of the time, they are pushed together to form a reasonably sized rectangular dining surface. But when many guests are coming, the tables can be pulled apart to provide additional space for more chairs.
“All of a sudden, it sits 16,” he said, “because you can have two people on every side.”
For a Manhattan loft, he used a different approach, placing a drop-leaf table in a television nook near the dining area. When the leaves are down, the table serves as a place to have casual meals or drinks in the front of the TV; when multiple guests are expected, it can be carried out to the dining area and opened up as a second dining table.
“Drop-leaf tables are perfect for those sorts of situations,” Mr. Wolf said. “It’s almost like a coffee table, but then it just flips up and you’re able to sit extra people.”
A temporary, inexpensive folding table can do the same thing — and if you cover it with an attractive tablecloth, it can look just as good as a conventional dining table. It can be used separately or butted up against other folding tables to make one large expanse.
Alexandra Kaehler, an interior designer in Chicago, once used two folding tables alongside her regular dining table to seat 22 people for Thanksgiving. “I created an ‘I’ shape, with my dining table down the center and then the folding tables perpendicular at each end,” she said. “And I made it look cohesive by using the same linens, flower arrangements and china on all three.”
In smaller spaces, it’s important to think about the width of the table, said Catherine Brophy, an interior designer in Brooklyn. Especially in compact urban spaces, installing a long, skinny table can be the best way to maximize seating capacity.
“A standard dining table might be 42 to 48 inches wide,” Ms. Brophy said, but in small apartments she has used tables that are only 32 to 36 inches wide. “Day to day, you don’t want to feel like you have to walk around this gigantic table.”
Look Beyond the Traditional Dining Space
If your dining space isn’t large enough for an expanded table or multiple tables, it may still be possible to make everyone feel like they’re eating together.
In a home with an open floor plan, it’s perfectly acceptable to seat some guests at surfaces that are higher or lower than a typical dining table, said Jennifer Hunter, an interior designer in New York. If the dining area is open to the kitchen, for example, put some people at the island.
“It’s almost like they’re seated at a bar,” she said. “Then, even in the family area, we’ll have floor pillows and poufs, so you can throw a beautiful tablecloth over the coffee table and make a moment there.”
However you expand your dining area, you’ll need to increase the amount of seating.
First, calculate how many seats can fit. Sofia Crokos, an event designer in New York, recommends leaving a minimum of two feet of table surface for each guest.
“I love cozy, and people to be elbow to elbow,” she said — but your guests need enough room to use their cutlery without injuring those sitting next to them. “There’s a lot of hand and arm motions going on.”
Some types of seating offer built-in flexibility. A banquette, sofa, bench or settee along one side of a dining table is comfortable for one or two people to use on a daily basis, but can hold many more in a pinch. “You can squeeze a lot of people onto it,” Ms. Kaehler said. “You’re not limited by needing to have space where you can pull out chairs.”
Ms. Brophy likes long upholstered pieces for the same reason, but also favors seating elements that can be used elsewhere when they’re not needed for dining. For a home in Brooklyn Heights, she used portable stools with suede tops that could be tucked under the dining table or carried to another room. In a house on Shelter Island, she introduced additional dining chairs at a small kitchen table for casual meals when guests aren’t present.
It’s also common practice to park a couple of extra dining chairs against the walls of a dining room, where they serve as side chairs. And keep in mind: The chairs don’t need to match. Many designers prefer to have several different types of chairs around a dining table, to create visual interest.
Mr. Wolf often advises his clients to buy folding chairs that can be mixed with permanent ones for an event, and then tucked into a closet. “There are so many really wonderful folding chairs now,” he said, unlike the wobbly plastic ones many guests would rather avoid. One of his favorites is the oak Narin folding chair from Design Within Reach ($345).
If you have more storage space, he added, another option is to buy small-scale ballroom chairs like the ones used by rental companies. They don’t fold, but they’re lightweight and take up minimal space.
Create Serving Areas
When you squeeze a lot of place settings around a dining table, there’s less room for the things that typically occupy the center of the table: serving dishes, water carafes, flowers, decorative objects. That makes supporting pieces like buffets and bar carts important.
Such furniture doesn’t just take pressure off the dining table, it gives your guests an excuse to circulate. “People actually like getting up,” Ms. Hunter said. “They want to move around during a dinner party.” So, standing up to fetch a drink or serve themselves at the buffet shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience.
If you don’t have space in the dining area, another place nearby could serve the same function. “You can use a kitchen island,” Ms. Hunter said. “And a bar cart is wonderful, because it’s on wheels.”
Distribute the Decorations
Whether you extend your dining table, add a temporary second table, or seat some guests away from the main dining space, no one should feel like they’re in the cheap seats. To make all your guests feel appreciated, spread out the table decorations so they can be enjoyed by everyone.
When Ms. Crokos decorates for dinners, “there will never be just one arrangement” in the center of the table, she said. Instead, she favors long, linear arrangements of flowers and greenery in vases. “I might do two medium-size pieces with a lot of beautiful little satellite arrangements” spread across the tables, she said.
She suggested following a similar approach to lighting, which should create a warm glow. “Candles are super important,” Ms. Crokos said. You can use taper candles or votives — or a mix of both, as she often does.
But spread the lighting out, so everyone can enjoy the atmosphere and there’s enough illumination to see what’s on the plates. No guest likes being left in the dark.
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