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As dining rooms continue to evolve from a design standpoint, matching sets are making way for more creative arrangements that tone down the formality of the space once reserved for special occasions. This fresh take can lead to an enticing environment with less predictability and more flexibility than traditional configurations. 

According to Mary Liz Curtin, co-owner of Leon & Lulu in Clawson, you should consider your lifestyle before making your furniture selection. For instance, you might want a less delicate tabletop for games and other activities, so you won’t have to worry about scratches and dents.

As she explains, today’s dining rooms offer more than dining. “People do projects and kids do crafts. When you like to spread out your stuff, the dining room table becomes a wonderful work surface,” she says.

To update a matching set of furniture, you can refinish a buffet or replace a china cabinet. Chairs can be a more costly replacement since you typically have to buy at least six. “Nothing works harder in the dining room than the chairs, so you want to make sure they are stable,” says Curtin.

Dining chairs can be a challenge to mix. “If you get it right, they can be quite charming,” says Curtin who suggests varying the end chairs for an easy update. While a bench on one side of the table can be fun for kids, the fact that it doesn’t have a back means it isn’t always the best option for adults.

Whatever you decide, Curtin says the dining room should stay pretty all the time. Distinctive accent pieces might include a painted cabinet with closed doors for all those supplies you’d like to hide or a hutch with a glass front to showcase your collections. In lieu of a traditional buffet, a vintage dresser can be ideal for linen storage.

Soft lighting and mirrors set the stage when entertaining. “You don’t want your dining room to be too bright, so there’s nothing prettier than candlelight,” says Curtin. Get more bang for your buck with mirrors that make four candles look like eight. Mirrors can also lighten up a dark dining room and create the illusion of more space. 

The dining room is a great place for display, whether you want to create a library for books or highlight other personal objects like vintage candlesticks or toy trains. Surplus serving pieces, such as teapots or spare plates can be arranged on a shelf near the ceiling.

For an alternative centerpiece, try items like fruits and veggies that require less maintenance than flowers. “You don’t have to change the water daily, but they still give a softness, like a plant on a platter,” she says.

If you want to make a small change with a big impact, you could refinish the top of an existing table with a distressed look which is less precious. This way, says Curtin, 15 years later, the first gouge on the surface from your child still tells the story of your family.

Double duty

For a new home in Novi, Dan Davis, who co-owns Dan Davis Design in Ferndale with Paul Johnson, wanted to help these clients make their dining room shine. “Like most people these days, they don’t use it very often, but it’s the first room you see when you enter,” he says. They wanted it to be fashionable and multifunctional with a place to read, which led to a chaise in the corner. Other unique elements include a substantial piece of art propped against the wall and a metal chandelier above a rustic wood table.

A mirror on the wall reflects the chandelier in the dining room where great lighting is essential, not just the fixture but the quality of light, says Davis. He recommends a dimmer switch for lights that can be turned on even when the space is unoccupied. 

Since these clients don’t use their dining room every day, a collection of pottery makes a more significant design statement than a standard centerpiece on the table. “They’re a young couple who wanted their sense of style to be known and this was the room to do that,” says Davis. A bar area contributes to the colorful surroundings with green accents like vintage glass. Greige walls create a soothing backdrop.

The varied palette includes custom curtains in yellow and green that play against the neutral shades of the chaise and the velvet dining chairs. A colorful rug adds to the allure of the warm and inviting space while an end table that features Buddha faces reinforces the lighthearted feel of the room.

As Davis explains, good design is all about balance. The fact that the dining chairs match keeps the space cohesive. “You can go a little bold and it will still feel pulled together with an anchor to offset something surprising,” he says.

Winning combination

For another client’s dining room in Birmingham, a 1930s armoire joins a contemporary wood table with chrome legs surrounded by turquoise acrylic side chairs and upholstered host chairs. A creative array of art ranges from traditional portraits and abstract works to a wall-mounted platter. “When you mix old with new, it adds a certain vibrancy to an environment because it’s never predictable,” says Davis.

His business partner Paul Johnson loves adding antiques to a room with contemporary elements. “It creates a juxtaposition of styles that allows each piece to stand on its own and be seen,” he says.

As Johnson explains, distinct or unexpected items can add interest and break up all the matching elements. “Think of using an inexpensive kilim area rug for a tablecloth or choosing a unique light fixture,” he says.

“Make sure what you do looks deliberate. Choose pieces with different scales while using color to unify the items,” adds Johnson. “We like to have a thread of black running through the room as it tends to tie together disparate pieces. People don’t often notice it until we take it away.”

Lastly, says Davis: “Don’t be afraid to have some major impact in a dining room. That room is meant for celebrations. It should be a delightful place for the eye, not just the taste buds.” 

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at

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