Though your dining table and chairs don't have to match, they do need to complement each other. Here's how to choose dining chairs that look and feel good with your table:
Most importantly for comfort, the respective scales of your dining table and chairs must be compatible. If you measure from the floor to the top of the table, most dining tables range from 28 to 31 inches high; a 30 inch height is the most common. From the floor to the top of the seat, 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, and the apron if the table has one, and by the size of the diner.
To find the seat height to table ratio 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 when you're dining in restaurants or in the homes of family and friends. Keep a small tape measure 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 does have an apron, measure from the bottom of the apron to the top of the dining chair seat.
Note whether the chair seat is hard or upholstered. Upholstered seats tend to compress when you sit on them. 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 measure it again when you're sitting on it. Add the difference between the two to your ideal table to chair seat distance.
(Tip: If you visit a furniture store to test different dining chair and table heights, tell the salesperson what you're doing. She probably works on commission and many stores work on a rotating "up" system. If a salesperson is assigned to you, her time is wasted while you're in the store and she may have to go to the bottom of the list when you leave. If you're upfront your intentions, she can either help another customer or at least keep her place in the queue. Being upfront benefits you too. You can test chairs without listening to a sales pitch.)
Scale isn't just about compatible heights. You also need to choose chairs that actually fit under your table. Otherwise, your diners won't feel comfortable and you'll end up with damage on both the 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. Follow those guidelines for all of the chairs you use for square and round tables.
If you plan to use two or more chairs on each long side of the table, make sure there's room to slide them under with bumping any part of the base or each other. If the chair seats touch each other, your diners may feel they don't have enough personal space. The same is true for round tables; leave at least two inches of space between each chair.
If you use dining chairs with arms at any type of table, make sure the tops of the arms don't brush or bump into 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 top of your chair seat backs are taller than the top of the table. Taller is better, but a height difference of two inches is the absolute minimum.
In addition to choosing tables and chairs of compatible scale, the pieces need to look good together. The styles must be compatible too.
Choosing styles that work well together is typically achieved by choosing pieces that share some common element. That common element can be the period, the finish, the level of formality, or the wood or metal from which the pieces are made. 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.
Armless, upholstered parsons chairs or dark, painted Hitchcock chairs both work with either of the aforementioned tables. The parsons chair, which is a fully upholstered slipper chair with dining chair proportions, has simple lines which are neutral enough to work with most 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 is so outrageous that it works.
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 so prissy that they make Marie Antoinette look like a casual gal, the overall 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 dinner party guest list will wish they'd thought of it first.
For more tips on DIY dining room decorating: