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Formal and casual: How to design a dining room with a double life

For a home with no kitchen table, we created a dining room that could be casual or elegant.

Barry Calhoun Photography

In most homes we design, the dining room is a place for crisp table linens and adult conversation, and the kitchen is for everyday grub. Recently, though, we encountered a home with an interesting problem – its kitchen had no table (it was displaced by a large island), so its dining room had to split the difference between formal and casual.

Since the dining room would see traffic from both Tuesday-night casseroles and Saturday-night socials, it was important that the design hit notes of comfort and elegance in equal measure.

Here are five ideas that helped us balance the competing demands of the room.

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Light floors lighten the gravity

Dark floors, rich and sophisticated, carry a dramatic weight. That's fine when you want it, but all that mood comes with a maintenance cost: A dark floor often shows dust and scratches within seconds of a polish. We've moved away from suggesting dark floors for our clients over the past 18 months, shifting instead to the mid- and light-toned.

This rooms features one of my favourite floors: an engineered wide-plank white oak with a waxed finish. Scratches and scuffs only add to its character over time, deepening what the Japanese would call its wabi-sabi ("perfectly imperfect") appeal. If, in time, the look gets too rustic, a simple wax and buff brings it back to life.

Architecture, not ornate texture

Located just off the foyer, the dining room is the first space you see on entering the home.

To dress the room in fancy wallpaper and shimmering drapery would undermine both the continuity of the main floor and the farmhouse atmosphere we'd created.

But it was important not to make the room too plain. It needed just enough unique detail to give it a presence in the home. To this end, rather than use superficial decorations – ribbons and shiny things – we decided to highlight the room's architectural details.

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The ceiling was where we focused attention, installing a simple, square coffer to add texture to the room and draw the eye up. We were careful to use matte ceiling paint on the coffer, not semi-gloss. We wanted light to fill its recesses, not reflect off them.

Can't have the one you want? Have two

I had in my mind the ideal fixture for this room. It was an antique Dutch chandelier, the kind whose chunky, milky crystals, hang, occasionally clunking, from aged brass tiers. Its flawed beauty would be a fine complement to almost any interior.

But the budget didn't allow for a chandelier large enough to hold its own under the 10-foot ceilings, which would have cost more than $5,000. But it did allow for two more modest fixtures. We located two mid-sized chandeliers of wrought iron and crystal, which cost a third of the price of our dream light. They do the trick nicely, though, bringing enough understated romance to keep the room from feeling stark.

Symmetry in furniture

Rustic, French-inspired furniture is popular at the moment, and while I'm usually leery of trends, in this case Restoration Hardware had some pieces that were perfect for our room.

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The dining table has a beautiful silhouette that offers a hit of visual interest; the dining chairs, with their long slipcovers, add volume to the space while offering comfort. But it's the china cabinets that make the room. Their symmetrical placement at either side of the door, with the family's dishware displayed inside, creates a utilitarian nostalgia that works. The white walls around the pieces enhance their texture.

The beauty of imperfection

We're often asked about the practicality of linen. Many people object to linen's wrinkly character, while others worry about it staining.

To me, linen is one of the most beautiful fabrics to make drapery from. It has a lovely weight to it and a subtle texture. Wrinkles don't bother me in the slightest.

Here, we wanted the soft, earthy colour of natural linen but also wanted to address the common complaints. To that end, we chose an inexpensive linen and polyester blend close in colour to the flooring. The synthetic fibre is less vulnerable to fading and more resistant to stains. I'm almost sure I remember my father saying the same of a leisure suit he owned.

Kelly Deck is a principal designer in R. Kelly Deck Design in Vancouver.

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About the Author

Kelly Deck has been advocating for West Coast design since 2002, when she 
 opened an interior decor boutique on Vancouver's Main Street. Since then, 
 Kelly has immersed herself in the lifestyle and community that makes West 
 Coast design unique. More


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