Designing a Dinner Party

Mary Cook contributed to this story. Cook is the founder and president of Mary Cook Associates.
Her new book, “The Art of Space, Seven Fundamentals that Guarantee Great Interior Design”
demystifies interior design and makes it accessible to everyone. It’s available on Amazon.

In a recent John Burns real estate survey polling more than 20,000 active home shoppers electronically, 53% want formal dining rooms when they’re shopping for a new home. The respondents readily acknowledge that they may not use them all that much, but they don’t want to give up their holiday dinners and the occasional dinner party.

The entire point of my book, The Art of Space, is to demystify interior design and make it accessible to everyone. Tangible ideas that make sense. And work.

Here’s the reality:

For 14 years my husband and I have been part of a “dinner group” that consists of 5 couples. We all love to cook and entertain. And drink great wine. We get together 5 times a year, once in each home. Those are our more formal gatherings. More frequently in each of our homes are the casual gatherings: our children’s team parties, summer picnics, birthday and graduation parties. Naturally, we want our parties to be a success. And we define success as: everyone had a great time, great food, and would remember it fondly.

Whether the occasion is formal or casual, summer or winter, the dining room plays a major role in any dinner party or social event. A thoughtfully designed dining room provides the proper environment for a successful gathering.

The Table
Choose a table that can expand and contract to fit the occasion. A table with a pedestal-style base will allow you to put more chairs around it since you won’t have to contend with the legs. If your room can handle it, consider using a wide table that will allow you to seat 2 people at each end. More people facing more people means more conversation.

You can also get custom pads made for the top. Place a table cloth over the pads to protect your table from anything wet, hot, or cold. A dining room table should look beautiful when you’re not using it, then convert easily to a buffet, formal dining, smaller intimate gathering, or a work table.

To ensure the best possible dining experience, it is critical that the lighting be flexible, allowing the room to perform in a variety of different ways for a variety of different moods. If you have multiple light fixtures in your dining room, put them on separate switches and put dimmers on all of them. Being able to adjust the lighting will allow you to set the stage for any kind of mood imaginable. Think of your favorite restaurant, the one where you’ve had your most memorable meals. Restaurants use simple, mood-setting lighting, and now you can, too.

Buffets & Servers
Depending on the size of your dining room, you may be able to fit in one or two important pieces of furniture. Tall china cabinets are good for storing all the formal dinnerware that gets used less frequently. Storage is important, but lower serving height pieces can be used for buffets, dessert tables, or bars. Setting up an appetizer or desert course before your guests arrive not only makes a beautiful presentation, it also gives your guests something to look forward to.

Setting the Table
This is my favorite part of entertaining. Fresh flowers, crisp linens, dinnerware, flatware, and glassware all get choreographed for the occasion. For formal dinners, use place cards. Yes, place cards. Why not? The subliminal impact of this gesture will amaze you. When your guests see the effort you’ve put into entertaining them, they not only appreciate it, but it also creates a wonderful aura that makes your party special. It allows you to put different people together. Positioning people in the right spot at the table can be the difference between a good and a great dinner party.

Keep centerpieces and table décor low to avoid obstructing between people. This is a conversation killer.

The Chairs
To maximize the amount of people who can fit at the table, opt for smaller chairs. My mother used to break out the piano bench and fit three people at the end of the table. Upholstered seats are more comfortable, so I usually save those for our older guests. Generally speaking, mix and match your chairs as needed. We’re not using chairs to design for looks. We’re using them to maximize the fun. People don’t care WHAT they are sitting on, they care WHO they’re sitting next to. If it’s a buffet, pull all the chairs away from the table and move them out of the room. Then people can move through the line faster and with fewer accidents.

Mirrors in a dining room can have strong impact.  Hanging a mirror just above a serving piece gives you a great neutral backdrop for whatever you are displaying on the top. Floral arrangements can look twice as full; a candle flicker can be reflected for a second time into the room adding to the ambiance. A mirror can also create the feeling of spaciousness in a room, especially if you are capturing a view outside in the reflection. Be sure to position the mirror at a height and in a place that doesn’t reflect people’s faces while they are sitting down eating.

The Bottom Line
Design can create the environment that can take your gathering from good to great. It’s not about creating beauty, but about creating a harmonic balance where you can entertain effortlessly and your guests feel comfortable enough to relax, to talk, and to have fun.

Join a family as they host their first progressive dinner party in their new Toll Brothers home on the “Entertaining in a Toll Home” episode of Toll Lifestyle TV!

This Post Has 2 Comments

    1. Toll Brothers

      Hello Careen, thank you for your comment! Toll Brothers is currently offering three bedroom townhomes nationwide. It would be best for you to first decide what region or state you are most interested in, and then select the three bedroom townhome option to see what communities in that region offer that product. If you would like, we can further help you with your townhome search by letting us know what region or state you are most interested in and then we can get you in contact with the appropriate sales representative. Please email us at

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