New chairs and a simple overhead light convert this once formal dining room into a casual one.

How to Convert a Formal Dining Room to a Casual One

by Amanda Bell

For many families, a formal dining room doesn’t fit into their lifestyles, even if they love entertaining. Upgrade your space by reworking most of what you have and adding in new pieces to make the room more casual. In the event of more formal affairs in the future, it’s much easier to dress up a casual dining room than it is to dress down a formal one.

Wall Ideas

Formal dining rooms are often outfitted in darker colors or ornate wallpaper, neither of which works in a casual setting. Paint the trim in the room a bright, crisp white to highlight architectural details, and then paint the walls a lively yellow, cool blue, soft beige or another shade that you’d find in a living room rather than a formal dining space. Keep the space simple with just paint, or create an accent wall with eye-catching wallpaper. Couple light teal walls with a wallpaper in a bright coral floral pattern. Yellow striped wallpaper pairs beautifully with soft gray or lilac painted walls, while a neutral, off-white wall color can act as a balance to nearly any pattern that catches your eye.

Refinish and Rework the Dining Set

In a formal dining room, furniture is often stuffy, ornate and darker in color, none of which lends itself to a relaxing meal with family and friends. While you can buy a more casual set, look at what you have and see if it can be refinished. Even the most lavish table can look simpler with a few coats of paint or a new distressed finish. Update the chairs to match or coordinate with the table, and install cushions or unstructured slipcovers over a few or all of the chairs. For a more eclectic look, swap out some of the existing chairs with new ones, creating a mismatched set. If a new dining set is a must, look for lighter wood with a visible grain or painted wood, and pieces with a more matte finish. Plastic, metal or tables made of reclaimed wood can also work in a casual dining room. Avoid ornate carvings or matching sets, and instead find a table you love and then look for one to three different types of chairs to go with it.

Rethink Your Buffet

You can refinish the existing buffet in your formal dining room to convert it into a more casual setting. Refinish the buffet to match your new or updated dining set, or paint it a fun, uncommon color to brighten the space and set it apart from the dining set. In a room with all-white wood, a bright red, sage green or stormy blue will make the piece stand out. If you don’t have a buffet or you want to replace your current piece, cube organizers; a long, narrow table; built-in cabinets; or simply no buffet at all are perfect alternatives to a traditional, formal buffet.

Replace the Lighting

An ornate, formal chandelier has no place in a casual dining room. Replace the overhead fixture with a more compact, less over-the-top design. A light fixture featuring several smaller covered lamps, a single orb pendant in a bold color or a row of pendant lights suspended over the dining table are all good options. If your existing fixture isn’t too elaborate, consider repainting it an unexpected shade. A traditional gold chandelier becomes incredibly modern and fun with a few coats of bright red spray paint. Hardware stores also offer a variety of new shades and lights that you can use to update old fixtures, as well as uniquely patterned candle sleeves to add a more casual element to a traditional candlestick chandelier.

Update the Window Treatments

Swap out heavy drapes for inside-mounted shades in a natural finish such as bamboo or a gray-leaning white if you have quality trim around the windows. This allows for plenty of light during the daytime and privacy for evening gatherings. If you prefer standard curtains, opt for fabrics with a noticeable woven texture and little to no sheen, avoiding silk, velvet and the like. Keep the space bright and open by opting for privacy window film in lieu of traditional curtains or shades; this makes it impossible to see in from the outside, yet keeps the dining room saturated in natural light.

Downgrade the Artwork

Remove the existing artwork and replace it with an asymmetrical gallery wall featuring a mix of family photos, children’s artwork and more adult pieces. Include plates, letters or floating shelves in the mix for a very casual feel, and opt for different frame styles to keep the collection relaxed. The trick here is to not choose one type of piece for the room’s wall décor. A mix keeps things interesting, fun and, of course, casual.

About the Author

Amanda Bell spent six years working as an interior designer and project coordinator before becoming a professional writer in 2010. She has published thousands of articles for various websites and clients, specializing in home renovation, DIY projects, gardening and travel. Bell studied English composition and literature at the University of Boston and the University of Maryland.

Photo Credits

  • Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images