Don't pass on a stunning dining table just because it doesn't come with chairs. Your table and chairs don't have to match. Your chairs do need to suit your table's scale and style. Here's what to consider when you choose chairs for your dining table:
For comfort, the respective scales of your dining table and chairs must be compatible.
If you measure from the top of the table to the floor, most dining tables range from 28 to 31 inches high; a 30-inch height is the most common. From the top of the seat to the floor, dining chairs frequently range from 17 to 20 inches high. That means the distance between the seat and tabletop could be anywhere from 8 to 14 inches.
The average diner finds a distance of 10 to 12 inches the most comfortable, but it varies by the thickness of the tabletop, the height of the apron, and by the size of the diner.
To find the seat-height-to-table-height distance you find comfortable, test a table (or tables) with a mix of different chairs.
You can visit a furniture store with lots of kitchen and dining sets on display. Or, simply pay attention to your comfort level when you dine out. Keep a small measuring tape in your purse or pocket so you can note the exact distance when you find one that fits.
Don't just measure from table's top to the seat. If the table doesn't have an apron, measure from the bottom of the tabletop to the top edge of the chair seat. If the table has an apron, measure from the bottom of the apron to the top of the seat.
Note whether the chair seat is hard or upholstered. Upholstered seats tend to compress when you sit. If the padding is thick, the compression may be substantial. To get an accurate reading, measure from the top of the upholstered seat to the floor while the chair is empty, and then have someone measure it again while you sit. Add the difference between the two to your ideal table-to-seat distance.
If you visit a furniture store to test different chair and table heights, tell the salesperson what you're doing so she doesn't lose her spot on the "UP" list—a system used in certain stores to help determine which salesperson will be assisting a customer.
Width and Depth
Scale isn't just about compatible heights. You also need chairs that actually fit under your table. If they don't, your diners won't feel comfortable and you'll damage both table and chairs.
The chairs you place at each end of a rectangular or oval dining table should slide under the table without bumping into the table legs, or into the base of a pedestal or trestle table. Those guidelines also apply to every chair you use with square and roundtables.
If you plan to use two or more chairs on each long side of the table, make sure there's room to slide them underneath with bumping each other or the table's base or legs. If the chair seats touch, diners feel cramped and uncomfortably close. The same is true for roundtables; leave at least two inches of space between each chair.
Arm and Back Heights
If you use dining chairs with arms at any type of table, make sure the tops of the arms don't brush or bump the bottom of the tabletop or apron. In addition to the inevitable damage your chair arms will suffer, diners may not be able to sit close enough to the table to eat comfortably.
The final scale concern when choosing chairs for a mixing room table is the difference between the table height and the overall chair height. Make sure the backs of your chairs are taller than the top of the table. Taller is better, but a height difference of two inches is the absolute minimum. The chairs look squatty otherwise.
In addition to choosing tables and chairs of compatible scale, the pieces need to look good together. The styles must be compatible too.
Choosing tables and chairs with a common element usually ensures that they'll look good together. That common element can be the period, the color undertone of the finish, or the level of formality. It can even be a single design element, such as the furniture legs or feet. That said, don't choose tables and chairs that share all of the same elements or you might as well just buy a matching set.
If you have an 18-century mahogany double-pedestal dining table with a gleaming French polish, it's not going to look right paired with distressed pine ladder-back chairs with coarse rush seats. It's also not the right table for a mismatched collection of metal ice cream parlor chairs or folding French garden chairs made with wooden slats.
A planked farmhouse table with turned legs is the better choice with any of the chairs from the previous paragraph, but it won't look right with the Chippendale ribbon-back chairs that are ideal for the mahogany table.
However, upholstered Parsons chairs or painted Hitchcock chairs both work with either of the aforementioned tables.
The Parsons chair—an upholstered slipper chair with dining chair proportions—has simple lines that are neutral enough to work with most table styles. Its level of formality depends primarily on the fabric used to upholster it.
The painted finish of the Hitchcock chair makes it compatible with most wood finishes. Its woven seat makes it casual enough for the farm table. The gold stenciling and classic shape make it dressy enough for a formal table.
As with most decorating rules, there are exceptions. When mixing a dining table and chairs, the exception is when the pairing works because it's so outrageous.
If you mix an uber-sleek contemporary zebrawood dining table with a set of early American maple chairs, it just looks like you have no taste and no sense of what's appropriate.
If you mix that same table with a collection of carved-and-gilded chairs prissy enough to make Marie Antoinette look like a casual gal, the look is deliberate and avant-garde.
You'll still get some raised eyebrows from your more provincial pals, but the fashion-forward folks on your guest list will wish they'd thought of it first.