Mix and match seating options are giving retailers, and consumers, something to chew on
OK, Boomers, think back…way back. You’re seated at the head of the family dining table wearing a paper crown. Your parents have dragged chairs from all over the house in an attempt to accommodate all of your many friends. Everyone is singing a rowdy version of “Happy Birthday” with the kind of gusto only ten-year-olds can muster.
Fast forward 40 years, give or take, and the scene at family dinner tables around the country likely hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of the seating. That’s because the newest trend in the dining category is mix and match chairs, and we’re not just talking upholstered host seats at either end of the table.
“The dining room is kind of interesting to me now,” notes Janine Wagers, creative director at Universal Furniture. “It’s not the stodgy, old formal dining room that nobody went into more than twice a year, or that scary place where kids had to show their best manners and stuff. Dining rooms have come out of their shell and merged into the great room scene. It’s as though the dining room has been deconstructed and the category is really wide open now. You can have whatever table you like and mix and match whatever chairs you like.”
Coinciding with the rise in performance fabrics, it’s practically de rigueur these days to place comfortable upholstered chairs at either end of the table for the hosts. But until recently, the remaining chairs for those seated on either side of the table all matched the table itself and each other in style and finish. Yet trend forecasters suggest that decorating dictate is quickly changing, and the trend now is for side chairs in varying styles.
Chalk it up to Boomer nostalgia for their childhood birthday parties or other big family gatherings.
“Do you want to make your space more formal? Less formal? Is farmhouse your thing? It all depends on what the customer wants to convey in their dining room,” Wagers says, “and they can use different chairs to create completely different looks.”
Along with chairs in varying styles, benches continue to be hot as seating options. “We’ve enjoyed a nice surge of business with our expandable benches,” says Tom Halvorsen, vice president, Borkholder Furniture. “Kids love sitting on benches, and their parents like that our benches expand in length when extra seating is needed.” He adds that the company’s gathering tables, which can accommodate as many as 16 people, continue to be a popular choice for those with larger families and people who like to entertain.
“As little as 10 years ago, formal dining was all but extinct,” Halvorsen admits, “but we’re seeing a resurgence in the category, and I think it’s a reflection of the Boomer generation, the 40- and 50-somethings who may be skipping decorating their second or third bedroom in favor of creating a dining area for their family and guests that they can be proud of. Even so, it’s not the traditional dining in the 18th century cherry styles they may remember from their childhoods. In our business, it’s all about premium woods in sophisticated finishes and transitional styles in very adaptable configurations.”
Hooker Furniture’s Hill Country Collection offers the sophisticated finish customers are looking for. A whole-home collection, the group is crafted of flat-cut rustic white oak veneer that’s cracked prior to finish application. The process gives the group a seasoned appearance. The main finish is a timeworn saddle brown that’s married with an anthracite black for a two-tone finish.
HFA member Lora Sigesmund, a member of the Contemporary Design Group (CDG) and co-owner of Pittsburgh-based Perlora, says, “For our clients, it’s not necessarily a kitchen table and another more formal dining table used only for special occasions. More typically, there’s a breakfast bar and a dining table that is used as the everyday table, whether it’s located in a formal dining room or not.”
In a bid to attract more Millennial customers, Sigesmund and her husband Perry have recently launched Perlora Loft, located next door to Perlora, which in western Pennsylvania is known for its sophisticated collections of better-end contemporary and modern furnishings. Perlora Loft focuses on apartment and loft settings. “Our younger customers generally choose less expensive furniture, but they still want quality and they are open to possibilities,” she says.
On the Menu Now
“Dining is a mixed-up kind of category,” says HFA member Peggy Burns, self-annointed “Queen Bee” at Circle Furniture with stores in the greater Boston area. “People don’t want to buy dining room sets anymore. They might buy a reclaimed wood table, and then a variety of upholstered parsons chairs for example.” As for companion dining pieces, Burns says, “it’s time to say au revoir armoire. People don’t buy a hutch anymore, but they might consider a console buffet or an entertainment piece that can be utilized in a variety of ways, especially if they have an open concept layout, where they are serving two masters: family room and dining room.”
“One of the trends I am addressing is the growing demand for more innovative, multifunctional solutions for all types of small spaces, as well as varying consumer age groups,” comments Jena Hall, creative strategist at Twin Star Home. “As Baby Boomers re-size into smaller spaces they have different design needs. Their transition from bigger homes and their need to entertain large groups of people, into smaller spaces and more intimate social gatherings has led us to design different types of multifunctional accent piece solutions like a writing desk with drop leaf sides which doubles as a sofa table, a game table or a small apartment dining table for four. Our Uptown Loft Command Central bar-height table, meanwhile, is great in a loft area or an urban living setting. It can be used as a desk, with built-in drawers for work supplies, but converts to a dining table with storage for utensils and placemats after the work day, or a buffet when friends are over.”
This brings up the subject of how exactly to display multiple dining and seating options on the retail floor. While Wagers acknowledges that some dealers still hold fast to the traditional mindset, more and more are “coming around.”
“At market last spring we showed a roomful of chairs surrounding a table and dealers could play with the arrangement with chairs in different colors, finishes, upholstered and not,” Wagers said. “And we’re seeing more and more retailers use similar display techniques on their floors so that their customers can play too.”
At Circle, Burns says, “we were way ahead of the curve on that. We have always mixed up the chairs around the tables. We approach it a bit like Goldilocks, with four different chairs around a single table so the customers can sit down in each one and find the one they like best.”
Across the board, retailers say eclectic is the name of the game. As Becky Greene, director of merchandising at FurnitureLand South in High Point, N.C. says, “mixed materials in lots of unexpected combinations are definitely becoming more popular and our custom dining business is growing rapidly. We’re seeing a true consumer desire to design their own look with an ability to choose between multiple bases, legs, finishes, and even live-edge options, and the vendors that help us make that happen are winning. We’re also seeing that smaller dining tables are becoming increasingly popular. One of the things that we have noticed is that when customers are entertaining large gatherings, multiple rooms within the home are being used, so a huge dining table is less important, because the guests are spread out. Some are in the kitchen, and some may be out on the back patio.”
Bryan Edwards, says this has led his company, A.R.T. Furniture, to create designs for outdoor spaces that borrow from the comfort and style of the company’s indoor designs. In fact, this season, the company is showing at the Casual Market in Chicago for the first time ever.
“In our business, even older consumers want something totally different,” says Carol Jolley, owner of Jolley Design, a hybrid design studio and retail store in High Point, N.C. “They are seeking out very clean-lined tables and contrasting chairs and benches that are in many cases understated, and then letting the focal point be a wonderful chandelier.”
For this reason, the fact many full-line furniture stores abdicate the chandelier category to lighting showrooms may point out missed opportunities. HFA member LaDiff in Richmond, Va., is among those that have long offered fixtures. “When I think about lighting over a dining table, I remember my grandfather’s comment to me about why he hated to eat by candlelight: you want to see what you’re eating, right?” says Sarah Paxton, president of the contemporary/modern-focused retail dynamo. “Fixtures over a dining table can serve two purposes: lighting the space (and I recommend a dimmer switch so you can go from subdued, romantic dining to ‘time for homework’ lighting) and completing the physical look of the design. A long plane of a dining table needs some visual interruption overhead, and today’s innovative fixtures can provide that visual break,” she comments.
“From a design perspective, dining rooms today are focused on gathering and entertaining, on communing around a table,” says furniture designer Catina Roscoe, who serves as president of the American Society of Furniture Designers.
“When you think about it, so much of our lifestyles today focus on experience, more so than pretty,” Roscoe says. “There’s a new dimension to all of this now, and it’s the concept of social dining. As a society, we’re very focused on food. It’s not about just having a room full of pretty furniture, but the ability to create an unforgettable experience for family and friends. People post pictures of their food on social media, and there are a ton of food bloggers and cooking shows on television, and even underground supper clubs where complete strangers gather together for show-stopping meals prepared by professional chefs. The experiential aspect of dining is what’s most important now, not the formality of what you are sitting in, and the furnishings, the mix-and-match chairs especially, create that expression of style. The key is to strike a balance between comfort and hipness, so people can just pull up a chair and join the conversation.”