4 Fresh Ways to Use Your Parents’ Formal Dining Room Set


Home Style Compatibility Quiz


I have read two articles this week in completely different media outlets (here and here) about how Gen Xers or Millenials don’t want the “brown” furniture that our parents and grandparents bought, that it’s almost impossible to even give away let alone sell.

Dining room sets, formal living rooms, bedroom sets — apparently, we younger folks would rather buy new. These pieces, lots of them colonial reproductions or pseudo-reproductions and some extremely high quality, just aren’t “our” style! We like things more modern, or transitional, or casual. Heck, many of us don’t want something like a formal dining room at all!

(According to the above sources, nor are we interested in the books that lined our grandparents’ shelves, the silverware, or the fine china that cost a fortune then and goes for peanuts at auction and estate sales. All I can say is, “For shame!!!” If you personally don’t want that stuff, give it to me!!!”)

I have to say that in most instances, these authors are correct. And in addition to our style (in general) being different than the previous generation’s, most of us aren’t willing or able to spend the money on high quality stuff even within our aesthetic.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 9.44.46 AM
“Solid pine, engineered wood, and pine wood veneer” Dining Set From Your Friendly Neighborhood Big Box Store, via China or some similar country with an underpaid workforce. And the table alone still costs nearly $1,000.

Unlike the Baby Boomers at a similar age, my generation is heavily cost-conscious. I graduated college in 2000 at the end of the heady Clinton years.  We all had huge student debt, but the economy was great. Tons of my friends went to lucrative consulting and banking and dot.com (remember those?) jobs. Within a year and a half, 9/11 happened and the economy went bust. Whole neighborhoods where I lived in San Francisco went up for rent and many, unable to find jobs, moved back in with parents. It took 5 years for my generation to get back on its feet, for a total of 7 years of lost forward momentum, then, BAM! 2008 and the economy crashed for well and good. Another 5-6 years go by before we can get forward momentum again. We’re finally able to buy homes and decent cars now (about 10 years later than our parents did), but spend a fortune on furniture? Yeah, right. We’re still paying off our student debt and now saving for our own kids’ school.

Knowing this trendy style/low cost aesthetic, design magazines that are aimed at more accessible design — Domino, HGTV Mag, Lonny, etc. —  push a lot of Ikea hacks and Target room makeovers that will last up to five years, maybe, but not more.

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 9.21.09 AM

I don’t totally scoff at it; I buy the stuff too. I have an Ikea bookcase in my office next to me as I type at my consignment store Stickley desk.

Big Box stores like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and Restoration Hardware are selling stuff made in China, without any regulations on stuff like the formaldehyde used in their upholstery products and often with MDF and cardboard inside their frames, because it’s at a price we can stomach. (For the more environmentally conscious of you out there, well, think about those fumes in your family rooms or another big sofa in the landfill 5 years from now when the frame is no longer salvageable….)

But our parents and grandparents weren’t in our situation. They spent bank on some nice stuff here and there, especially in their formal rooms. And we are missing a huge opportunity now to be both cash conscious and quality conscious without sacrificing style! 

But how?

It’s all in the mix.

“But, Amy, haven’t you said so many times, the mix can actually be pretty hard to get right?”

True, dear reader. So I’ve created 4 “how-to” ways for freshening up one of the biggest Baby Boomer Brown Furniture items on Craigslist, in consignment stores, and at auction now:


THE DINING ROOM SET: 4 Ways to Give Formality A Refresh


Before going on, please read my post on brown furniture. It will tell you what quality brands to look for from the 1950s-80s and what to avoid (1930s-early 40s veneered stuff, etc. It was the Depression and WWII. The furniture was horrible.) Real antiques are good, too. 🙂


#1: Split the set

Keep 1-2 pieces of the old 4 piece sets — the table and the server OR the chairs and the china cabinet (or some combo thereof). Then go mix and match with different chairs and or a lacquered or painted server or bar cabinet (yes!!!), etc. If the set is your parents’ and you have a sibling who’ll take the other half, great!

via Better Homes and Gardens
Tom Scheerer
Tom Scheerer
lisa hilderbrand
Lisa Hilderbrand
Kathleen Walsh Interiors

And mixing doesn’t have to mean painted; a different wood finish will do as well. For example, my dining room has tiger maple chairs and corner china cabinet and flame mahogany server and table. They look great together.



#2. Refinish or paint something but not everything


First of all, if you want it to look good, make sure a professional does it. It can be the chairs. It can be the china cabinet or the server. If the table is in bad shape and/or is solid wood and doesn’t have any gorgeous flame veneers, paint it. You can have them bleached. You can give them a subtle wash of color. You can have them lacquered. But I reiterate, if you don’t want it to look like your first apartment hand-me-downs, have a pro do it.


mandarina studio
Mandarina Studio
mcgrath 2
McGrath II
Patrick Miele


#3: Young-up the backdrop


Fabulous wallpaper, fabrics, and lighting fixtures can make the oldest of antiques look fresh, let alone your parents’ nice furniture. And there are SOOOOOOO many awesome options out there.

Tiffany Eastman
robin pellesier
Robin Pellesier via Boston Globe
Photo by Eric Roth
Home Glow Design, Photo by Eric Roth
Ashley whittaker 2
Ashley Whittaker
kristien panitch
Kristen Panitch

If you’re scared of wallpaper, choose a vibrant and unexpected hue on the walls. You’re not in your dining room every day, after all.

Meg braff
Meg Braff
Mayling McCormick
Melissa Rufty


#4: Go Casual: Cover Ups and Seagrass


Just don’t want a formal dining room at all?

Give your dining room set the beach treatment. Put cute and kicky little slipcovers on those chairs. I’m a sucker for the ones with little kick pleats. All of the sudden a Queen Anne leg looks sexy under its little tennis skirt. But, again, go custom. You’ll never get a good fit, otherwise, and who wants to be sliding around on an ill-fitting, sloppy-looking slip cover.

Add a floor length table cloth to break up all that wood and then layer it with a short, white, washable, bleachable cloth for meals. Or have glass cut to cover it if it’s a smaller table. For a really custom look, have your seamstress make one from your favorite fabric. It’s a lot of yardage, but the effect is worth it.

And seagrass rugs are casual are indestructible.

T. Keller Donovan
T. Keller Donovan
Bradley E Heppner Architecture
Bradley E Heppner Architecture via Home Bunch
Miles Redd
Mackay Boynton
Unknown via Pinterest
Kelee Katillac
phoebe howard
Phoebe Howard


Local Finds


For those of you in upper New England who might be interested in owning a fine, heirloom dining room set, there are 3 very fine ones in the Boston area right now — a Kindel set, a Kittinger set, and a Hickory Chair set. A couple are overpriced imo (I’d probably offer $1500-$2000 or so). Thomasville was a more mid-priced maker (my parents have something similar, but they weren’t ready to give it up when I bought my house), but this set is nicely priced, and they’re entertaining offers! There are also some great tables and sideboards being sold singly out there.

As always, check your nearby auctions! Most auctioneers break up sets, so you can pick and choose your vintage table vs. chairs, etc.

Do you have a vintage formal dining set (or could you have one if you accepted your parents’ plea to take theirs)? Stuck for ideas? Give me a call!


A pin to remember me by!

4 fresh ways to use your parent's formal dining room set


Next week I’ll have a sneak peak at a master bedroom project I have in the works. ‘Til then!



Home Glow Design Shop on Chairish

6 thoughts on “4 Fresh Ways to Use Your Parents’ Formal Dining Room Set”

  1. What a great, helpful blog post. Thank you! And the rooms you feature are just breathtaking. I will continue to dream….

  2. Great post with good advice! I am seeing American made furniture snapped up in the south. We know there won’t be any more made in North Carolina.
    Your pictures have any beautiful ideas that prove your point. Thanks

    1. Thanks, Connie! Glad you liked. Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I’m hoping that as my generation heads into our late 30s and 40s, we’ll develop a little less disposable taste. 😉 Heck, we recycle everything else!

  3. Great tips for updating traditional dining rooms! I recently did just that! Because my dining room has a northeast exposure, it looked dark and old (stuck in the 90s). I took down the dark blue damask wallpaper and painted the entire room, walls, ceiling and trim, linen white. The inside of the built-in corner cabinet is now painted red (a color picked up from the new curtain fabric). Then I replaced the dark Persian rug with a beige and white indoor/outdoor chevron pattern rug. I also replaced the matching China cabinet with a distressed buffet in a lighter wood, which is more practical for dinner parties–now there’s a spot to place wine bottles, serving dishes, etc. The matching dresser got a grey chalk paint overhaul, and I brought in some Windsor chairs (bought for a song at an estate sale) to sit alongside my existing Queen Anne chairs–which were recovered in a red faux shagreen fabric. Lastly I replaced the swag and jabot curtains with panels in a pretty linen print hung on rings for the French doors and faux roman valances on the windows. The room is so much more inviting and less formal, and everyone loves it!

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Home Style Compatibility QUIZ!

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