Along came World War II, the servants went off to work in wartime factories, and things were never the same again. Modern architects ripped down walls, and the dining room either shrank or disappeared entirely, replaced by that amorphous space known as the dining area. As the dining room contracted, the kitchen grew and practically everyone got used to the idea of eating family meals there.
The growing informality inspired a new kind of furniture for dining. With even formal meals served in an extension of the living room, chairs and tables had to harmonize with the larger room's style and provide extra seating there when needed. Grandmother's ladder-backed antiques didn't always fit into this picture.
The purchase of dining room chairs is not to be taken lightly, given the numbers needed, so we asked several Bay Area designers to choose some of their favorites and to offer some tips on making what may be a very long-term commitment.
Ruth Livingston, an interior designer in Tiburon, says, "The first piece of furniture I ever designed was a dining room chair, because they were so hard to find." Created in 1994 for a client in Atherton, the Athena chair, a skirted style with a high, curvaceous back, went on to become a bestseller and spawned countless variations.
"They all have a back detail, because that's what you see most of a dining room chair.
Her newest design is her variation of the oval-backed Louis XV chair that has been re-interpreted in everything from gilded wood to Lucite. She has stripped the familiar shape down to its essentials, a slender, unframed oval back perched above an upholstered seat and four sturdy wooden legs.
Palo Alto interior designer Pamela Pennington has a sleek, understated favorite. It's the Cadette chair by Dakota Jackson, a New York-based designer whose studio and factories are in Long Island City. "This chair is extremely comfortable with its high back and padded seat," she comments. "I love the fact that it offers so many options. You can do an upholstered chair with your own choice of fabric. It also comes with the wood back with upholstery just on the seat, for a more informal look. It also comes as an armchair and now, with the Cadette II, you can have a cutout back for a more retro look. It's a classic, and it's made in this country."
San Francisco designer Jay Jeffers, known for his lighthearted, colorful interiors, offers some practical suggestions for picking the right chairs. "Think about how much they will be used. If they're for everyday dining, comfort should be a factor. If they're only used for occasional dinner parties, you want your guests to be comfortable, of course, but style can play a larger part.
"We tend to use out of the ordinary chairs, and we mix them. For example, we might use a wooden side chair with an upholstered seat, but we would use fully upholstered wing chairs as the armchairs at the ends of the table. You can use different chairs to add interest as long as the seats of the chairs are the same height."
His own dining area in San Francisco is an example of his free spirited approach. He's lined the sides of the gleaming wooden table with six side chairs dating from the 1960s. At the ends, two imposing armchairs with fretwork backs seem to have arrived from a garden terrace; in fact, he acquired them from the estate of the late Vivian Vance, the television actress best known for her role as Lucy Arnaz's best friend. The trellis pattern is repeated in the skirt around a nearby console table that serves as sideboard. It's a relaxed setup that our grandparents undoubtedly would not have understood.