Wood benches, long removed from their dugout digs, have become the epitome of unconventional cool in the dining room. Designers and homeowners alike praise dining benches’ ability to seat a crowd, plus the casual milieu they can lend. Yet if you have notions of drafting a hard wooden bench to pinch-hit for your dining chairs, you may want to reconsider. Though wooden benches were all the rage at the peak of the farmhouse trend a fortnight ago, designers today are opting for meatier seats, so to speak. What’s replacing them? Ballast-adding banquettes and settees that seduce with their plushy forms. If you’re considering bench chairs for the kitchen, or you’re wondering how to decorate with a kitchen bench, start here! We’ve assembled a dining bench hall of fame, full of tips and takeaways to get you inspired. 

Photo courtesy of James Thomas Interiors

Built-In Banquette

While wood dining benches lend undeniable charm to a space, you can bet your guests won’t leave raving about their comfort level. (Good news if you were hoping they’d save their laurels for the pork tenderloin, anyway.) Designers, reluctant to scrap the dining bench altogether, have turned to banquettes to emulate the ease of a dining bench without the off-putting rigidity. Designers particularly love wedging this easy-living essential into a kitchen nook or dining nook. In an area that might feel too petite for a proper table and chairs, a dining banquette feels both energizing and functional. Part of the reason for this is that a dining banquette requires no extra room for pulling in and out chairs. This minimizes visual voids and makes a nook feel intentional.

Design by Pappas Miron / Photo by David A. Land

Scene-Stealing Settee

If customization feels like a burden you’d rather not undertake, consider a settee. Possessing all of the gravitas of a built-in banquette without the accompanying lift, settees are the perfect alternative to going bespoke. When choosing a settee, you’ll want to entertain pieces that lean more boxy than curvaceous. Which is to say: square-backed Louis XV settees—in; shield-back Hepplewhite settees—out. A boxier form will present more like a built-in banquette, creating a cleaner overall look. Many designers are also fond of utilizing patterned fabric on dining room bench settees, as patterns can make a piece look more custom. Another trick? Forgo a settee with arms. A slipper-style silhouette means kids and guests won’t have to physically move the bench to seat themselves.

Photo by Sarah Dorio

Classic Wood Bench

If you’d rather not archive your farmhouse fandom just yet, there’s no shame in still springing for a simple hardwood bench. To elevate the look, steer clear of matched dining bench and table sets from big box stores. Instead, opt for a vintage picnic set—or better yet—cultivate a set of your own. If assembling a dining table and bench set from scratch intimidates you, try echoing like-bases, such as trestle-style bases or sawhorse-style bases. From a purely practical perspective, you also want to ensure that your bench can tuck in between your table’s base supports. Doing so means that guests can scoot closer to the table if required. Resist the urge to feel hedged in by wood finishes. Light woods like oak can pair beautifully with dark woods like walnut or cherry when all the pieces involved share a rustic finish.   

Design by Studio Sven / Photo by Ryan McDonald Photography

3 Tips for Designing with Kitchen Benches

Upholster with Care

To up the staying status of your banquette or settee, pay mind to what upholstery you choose to cover it in. Especially if you have kids, spills and stains are inevitable, and unlike dining chairs, you can’t push the stained one to the rarely used side of the table. You’ll hear designers wax poetic about Crypton and Sunbrella fabric for durable dining upholstery, and there’s a reason why. Both repel moisture, giving you ample time to blot up everything from wine to spaghetti sauce. Another tactic is to use fabrics like leather. Because an all-leather banquette has the potential to skew a bit imposing—not to mention pricey—try using just leather on just the seat. Using a contrasting fabric on the backrest can usher a playful mood and salvage the budget. 

Choose a Table with Curvature

We mentioned earlier to pass on matched dining bench and table sets. Part of the reason to steer clear? Most pair rectangular tables with rectangular benches. The overall effect can feel overly fortress-like, visually weighing down a dining room or kitchen. In contrast, designers are fond of partnering blocky banquettes and rectangular settees with oval or round tables. Not only does a round table break up the visual homogeneity, but it allows more of the dining bench to be exposed. A fact that’s especially pertinent if you’ve sprung for a designer fabric on your dining bench or banquette. 

Photo by Sarah Dorio

Factor Round Chairs into the Equation

Another way to avoid a quadrilateral overload when decorating with kitchen benches? If you’ll be integrating dining chairs into your set-up, spring for chairs with curves. Whether it be a set of oval-back Louis ghost chairs, a trio of sack back Windsor chairs, or a set of Hans Wegner CH30P chairs, curves will again buck the rectangular reign and make a dining bench feel like a guest at the table rather than a barricade. 

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January 3, 2022

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