Ask a Designer: maximize seating for entertaining

MELISSA RAYWORTH Associated Press Published:

The joy of home entertaining at the holidays often comes with a challenge: How do you provide enough seating for a roomful of holiday revelers with just a sofa and a few chairs? Are there creative options besides resorting to folding chairs?

Los Angeles-based interior designer Betsy Burnham frequently hears from clients who want help solving this puzzle. "People are doing more home entertaining than ever," Burnham says, so they want to design their living space to accommodate guests easily. For those without huge rooms, that can be challenging.

Here, Burnham and designers Brian Patrick Flynn and Kyle Schuneman offer advice on maximizing seating without sacrificing style.

STEALTH SEATING

"I'm a big fan of vintage ottomans, stools and sturdy side tables like stumps for this exact purpose," says Schuneman, author of "The First Apartment Book: Cool Design for Small Spaces" (Clarkson Potter, 2012). These pieces can work as tables or storage surfaces, he says, then occasionally serve "as extra seating for game nights or casual gatherings around the coffee table."

Benches can work the same way. Schuneman suggests buying two benches that coordinate nicely with the decor of your living room, and then placing them at the foot of beds in your home. When extra seating is needed, "you can easily pull them out for the holidays and bigger dinners," he says. "And you have a cohesive looking space, as opposed to a bunch of stuff you just pulled from around the garage."

Flynn, founder and editor of decordemon.com, uses ottomans in a similar way. "What I often do is use an upholstered or hardy wood storage ottoman on casters instead of a coffee table in the sofa area," he says. "Inside the storage ottoman, I keep floor cushions. When it's time for guests, the ottoman can be wheeled just about anywhere as extra seating, and the floor cushions allow guests to lounge."

Burnham points out that using ottomans or benches may be more appropriate in a casual family room or great room than in a more formal living room. But even for formal spaces, an elegant ottoman can work: "Done well, it's a beautiful way to bring another fabric into your space," she says.

CHAIRS FROM ELSEWHERE

Flynn often uses a mixture of different chairs and benches at a dining room table year-round, rather than a matching set. The look is stylish, and when chairs need to be brought into a living room for a party, they don't necessarily look like they're been taken from the dining room set. The mix can include "a three-seater bench, squatty stools, armless chairs, six chairs and a pair of wingbacks at each end," he says.

Another option he suggests: "Bring in your outdoor seating and deliberately mix it in with the indoor pieces. The juxtaposition can be nice, plus you can coordinate them with similar colored cushions or accessories."

Burnham does something similar with seating from game tables: A poker table with four chairs can be a great way to fill one corner of a room, she says, and those four chairs can be placed elsewhere in the room during a larger party.

THE RIGHT SOFA

Pay attention to size and depth when choosing a sofa, Burnham says. "A standard-size sofa is 7 feet. If you have three seat cushions, people sit in a pristine way in their cushion," she says, and you'll be limited to a maximum of three guests on your sofa. She prefers "sofas that have bench seams, so that it's one big seat," making it more likely that four guests might use the space.

Longer sofas offer additional seating, but Flynn says they're best used in what he calls a "floating space plan," where two identical long sofas are placed across from one another in the center of a room, rather than having one sofa against a wall. They need to be "balanced with an extra-long coffee table," he says.

Sofas with deep cushions are another option, but Flynn points out that "extra-deep sofas are very tricky. They are insanely comfortable, but can be a space planning disaster. I only use them in super large or grand living rooms. ... You've got to ensure the tables and chairs which surround it have the same visual weight."

Schuneman agrees: "I think you definitely want to mix it up with different patterns and textures of throw pillows, so it doesn't become a big blob in the room."

If you have extra space after choosing your sofa, Burnham suggests focusing on adding chairs to your living room rather than a loveseat. Although loveseats seem to offer more seating than chairs, they are often occupied by just one person. "A loveseat's a tough one," she says, "because I don't think people want to be super physically close" at parties.

FOLDING AND STACKING

"Folding chairs are often eyesores," Flynn says, so he prefers chairs that can be stacked when not in use. "My favorite stacking chair is the Emeco Navy chair. It's super light, maybe 7 pounds or so, and it's classic in design. When not in use, stack them seven high in a closet and you'll never know they're there."

Burnham and Schuneman have each found a few types of stylish folding chairs, but they tend to come with higher price tags. She favors black bamboo folding chairs from Ballard Designs (about $100) for rooms with a more traditional style, and has used clear Lucite folding chairs ("kind of like the Philippe Starck ghost chairs") in more modern living rooms.

Schuneman likes the fabric-covered "terai" folding chairs from Anthropologie (about $200), and suggests they can serve as a "great inspiration point for a DIY project." Try recovering the cushion of an old upholstered folding chair "in some beautiful fabric that works in your room," he says.

Planning carefully, shopping well and using a little DIY creativity are the keys to solving any holiday seating dilemma, says Schuneman.

"I always tell people to buy pieces that can move throughout your home," he says, "so that chair in the guest room can come into the living room, and that bench in the bathroom could double as an extra surface for gifts or what not. If you purchase pieces in your home that work throughout, it really maximizes your potential."