Elements of an Elegant Formal Dining Room

The formal dining room: it’s (unfortunately) losing popularity in new homes, but there’s nothing like a separate, elegant room for special occasions and fancy dinners to give your home a new level of sophistication. It’s a place to connect intimately over food, fine wine, friends and family.

Because formal dining rooms are increasingly replaced by multi-purpose dining rooms (that double as offices, music rooms, living rooms…) or phased out entirely in favor of an open-plan dining area off the kitchen (formerly known as a “dinette” or eat-in kitchen), it can be hard to find inspiration for yours. Many decor sites and blogs have plenty of pieces on how to use your dining room creatively and rethinking or repurposing the dining room, but not much on how to decorate a dining room as… a dining room.

For the sake of traditional dining room lovers everywhere, we present the most important elements to consider in planning a tasteful formal dining room. The main categories to address are:

Walls

The formal dining room is often characterized by rich, sophisticated colors and patterns. Due to the fact that we realistically do not spend much time in it, the dining room is the perfect place for experimenting with bolder colors. Deep colors like navy, charcoal, and burgundy are classics; wallpaper in similar shades is popular once again, especially textured papers like grasscloth or those with a metallic sheen for visual interest.

Dining Room by Twist Interior Design
If you do decide to go dark, be sure to choose furniture and flooring wisely. Too much darkness will transform the room into a black hole, an unattractive look (to say the least). Only attempt deep colors in a well-lit room; dim lighting + dark walls = murky cave effect, not elegant low-lit restaurant. If the lighting is inadequate or you’d prefer a lighter color, try warmer neutrals like cream and gold or a cooler, more modern shade like silver.
Dining Room by JD Smith Custom Homes
Afraid of color? Break up a dramatic shade with white semi-gloss trim, chair rails, picture moldings, and/or wainscoting. Wainscoting is also a cost-effective choice if you want to use pricey wallpaper – you still get the effect but only have to paper half of the wall. An even less expensive but very effective option: paper (or detailed painting) inside picture moldings only.
Dining Room by Heather Garrett Design
Choose moldings in proportion with the room in general. If your dining room is low-ceilinged or small, skip heavy, ornate crown moldings; if your ceiling is over 10’ high, allocate 1” of crown molding per foot (this rule is not applicable to rooms with lower ceilings). While crown molding and baseboards don’t need to be the same, they should be relatively balanced; a short, plain baseboard will look puny alongside a thick, elaborate chair rail. The same goes for furniture: if your chairs and table are sleek and minimalist, pairing them with an ornamental light fixture medallion (or any other trim) is not recommended. For subtler but definitely different visual interest, consider molded or textured moldings.
Dining Room by Carter Inc
While the accent wall is a popular feature throughout the home, it can come across as casual in a formal dining room. A good alternative is what’s known as the “fifth wall”: the ceiling. Feature ceilings are elegantly eye-catching and draw the eye upward, giving an illusion of a larger room. A tray ceiling, coffered ceiling, or otherwise decorative ceiling offers unlimited options in style, color, and lighting. If you’re building a new home (or replacing the dining room ceiling), framing out the ceiling is a more cost-effective option than applied moldings. If you do paint or paper the ceiling, consider painting the trim the same color as the walls to make the ceiling stand out even more.
Dining Room by James Michael Howard
Flooring

In a formal dining room, wood is the obvious – but not always the best or most practical – choice. It’s classic, versatile, and beautiful; it can be refinished as necessary; it’s available in a massive array of sizes, shapes, installation patterns, and colors. Be aware, however, that wood does need extra care – special cleaning agents, regular maintenance – and the cost is obviously a factor as well.

Dining Room by Jane Lockhart Interior Design
Some alternatives include laminate (not as formal), wood-look tile (colder and harder on the feet, but more durable), and vinyl tile (not always less expensive; may require a subfloor). Carpet is not recommended in dining rooms; it soaks up food stains and smells and tends to get grimy quickly. If you truly want a rug (to cover up an unsightly floor or to complement your décor scheme), follow one design rule: make sure that it’s large enough to allow the chairs to remain on it at all times, even when pushed away from the table.
Dining Room by AM Dolce Vita
If you do opt for wood, do everything you can to protect it from the very start: affix inexpensive (but essential) felt pads to the underside of all moveable furniture, including chair and table legs and all other freestanding pieces.

Dark wood is a timeless yet stylish look. Deep brown finishes like walnut and ebony are elegant: rich but still light enough to display the wood grain. Lighter woods like limed oak and whitewashed finishes are more modern and often more casual, as are gray-toned floors; steer clear of orangey tones whenever possible.

Dining Room by Resolution: 4 Architecture
Straight installation is classic; fashionable, trendier patterns include herringbone, chevron, and diagonal.
Dining Room by John Lively & Associates
Furniture

The most important part of the dining room is the furniture. Lavish decorating is pointless if your family will be sitting on folding chairs at a card table. Focus on the table and chairs above all else; other furnishings are nice but not strictly necessary. The furniture doesn’t have to be matchy-matchy or overdone; you don’t need that china cabinet just because it’s a classic part of the dining room “suite.” On the contrary: too much furniture will overcrowd the room, as will a cluttered glass-front curio cabinet. Buy what works for your particular needs – buffet, sideboard, china cabinet, corner curio, built-ins – but concentrate primarily on the table and chairs.

Dining Room by Sklar Furnishings
If your room is large enough, consider a round table. It’s a striking design feature that allows everyone to see everyone else while eating and provides more legroom (though all pedestal tables offer the same benefit). Many round tables may be extended with leaves just like their rectangular counterparts.
Dining Room by Heather Garrett Design
While it may seem natural to choose all furniture in the same style, mixing and matching is acceptable. A traditional table with contemporary chairs works well as long as they have some element in common, like color family, overall shape, or leg style.
Dining Room by Godrich Interiors
Choose the table first, then pick chairs to fit with it. Check the table height and chair height; the most comfortable chairs leave ten to twelve inches between the top of the seat and the tabletop. Be sure that there is plenty of clearance between the table edge and your body on the seat. Always sit on chairs before you buy them! You don’t want to spend that time ruing the day you hastily picked out a dining room set.
Dining Room by Scenic Sotheby’s International Realty
Like flooring, dark wood finishes are popular on dining room furniture, as are white painted finishes for a crisp, clean look. Choose contrasting upholstery for chairs; if the fabric you want is too costly or you’re afraid of getting it dirty, upholster the backs of the chairs in that fabric and the seats in a less expensive, more cleanable complement. Alternatively, upholster the side chairs in a solid or simple material and the armchairs or end chairs in your preferred fabric (patterned, tufted, whatever suits your fancy). Leather can be wiped down and is relatively stain-proof as well as stylish.
Dining Room by Weiss Alexander Design Group
Much as you may love the super-trendy chairs you see, don’t get them unless you truly love them as the styles change so rapidly. Opt for classic furnishings like Louis chairs that can be reupholstered, refinished, or painted for a refreshing change as your room starts to look out of date.
Dining Room by Kristin Petro Interiors, Inc.
Lighting

Traditional dining room lighting consists of a chandelier and matching sconces. The modern take on traditional features a streamlined chandelier, a linear fixture, or two or more matching chandeliers or pendants. Sconces are no longer a must-have; on the contrary, only choose sconces once the rest of the room is laid out and decided or you may end up with a different layout, culminating in off-center sconces, off-kilter drapery, or unsightly covers where the sconce holes were drilled.

Dining Room by Charlie & Co. Design, Ltd
If the color scheme is primarily dark, be sure there’s enough light – both natural and artificial – to keep it from veering into cave territory. Spotlights, in addition to the fixture(s), give the room adequate light; they’re even available in square for a more modern appearance. If you’ve chosen a tray or coffered ceiling, the detailing can hide extra lighting to cast the room in an ambient glow.
Dining Room by Urban Colony
Extras

Window treatments

Drapes are considered the most traditional option in the dining room, but they work in rooms of all sizes. Drapery doesn’t have to be expensive or custom-made; look for window treatments at stores like Home Goods, IKEA, or even Target and Wal-Mart. Just make sure to wash the drapes before hanging the rods and fabric; some materials may shrink. All drapery should be removable and cleanable.

Besides for the pattern and color of the drapes themselves, consider the rod, rings, and tie-backs. If you’re renting or on a budget, tension rods may work if your windows are deep-set; all rods are available in an array of finishes, from acrylic to brass to oil-rubbed bronze to aged silver and everything in between. Rings and tie-backs should coordinate with the general décor scheme; braided, tassled ties will look out of place in a sleek, modern room.

Dining Room by Imagine Living
Hang drapes as high and wide as possible; they should not cover the window when open. Drapery should hang no more than an inch off of the floor (avoid the flood-pants look!); today’s trends call for “puddling” of the fabric on the floor, but practically speaking, extra-long drapes are prone to damage, dust, slouching, and constant adjustments to make them puddle just right.
Dining Room by Liz Williams Interiors
Choose drapes for rooms with large windows or a set of windows; smaller windows may be outfitted with Roman shades or fabric blinds or shades in patterns, textures, or solids. The same rule applies: window treatments should cover as little of the window as possible when open, allowing for maximum light and openness.
Dining Room by Lizette Marie Interior Design
Decor and accessories

Though staged home-décor photos often show that you can mix and match patterns, it’s unadvisable unless you’re working with a skilled designer. Preferably, choose one feature of the room to pattern boldly. If you opt for busy wallpaper or moldings, pick plain chairs (and vice versa). Keep the flooring neutral to allow other elements to stand out; be sure wood tones in flooring and furniture don’t clash. Coordinate window treatments with other furnishings and fabrics; if the chairs are subtly patterned, a more dramatic drape is acceptable, but tone down the shades if you want the wallpaper to shine.

Sometimes the smallest touches make the biggest difference. Outfit your dining room with the right details to complete it.

  • Textiles: tablecloth or runner, napkins
  • Accessories: vases, flowers (fresh or faux), interesting centerpieces for the table or buffet
  • Wall décor: mirrors (choose large and round over a sideboard for visual interest), art
Dining Room by Merigo Design
Dining Room by Elad Gonen
Dining Room by Olson & Jones
Once it’s done, sit down in your new formal dining room for a candlelit dinner with your nearest and dearest and toast your excellent taste!

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