Oct
16

Banquettes: Cozy Corners

October 16, 2013

cozy banquettes for new chicago homesThe embrace of a cozy banquette, a happy detail in many a restaurant outing, brings myriad practical and aesthetic benefits to the kitchen and dining room in your new Chicago home.

“We love using banquettes because they’re more comfortable, they’re more visually interesting, they break up the monotony of having just six chairs around the table,” said Tom Riker, principal at interior design firm JamesThomas, as he ticked off the many reasons banquettes have made a residential comeback. “Families like them because they’re more lounge-y and comfy for the kids. And they’re great space-savers when you have an unusual corner.”

In their most classic form banquettes turn otherwise unused kitchen corners into informal dining nooks or extra seating with the addition of L-shaped benches, but they offer versatile solutions for varied spaces. You can set a long plush settee against a wall to provide dramatic seating for a formal dining table, build a stand-alone banquette to divide a loftlike space or create a booth in a bump-out.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a bay window, it would be a shame not to put a banquette in there,” said Sarah Storms, senior associate editor at Lonny home design magazine.

A “true banquette” is a built-in permanent fixture, so “be sure you want to live with it and sacrifice that part of your wall,” Storms said. But you also can create the look with armless benches or sofas set flush against the wall; just add sconces or a chandelier and you’ve created a mini-vignette that sets the area apart.

Here are some things to consider.

Space

Banquettes can be useful in spaces that won’t fit traditional dining setups, as the lack of bulky chairs allows the table to be closer to the wall and bench seating can cram in more bodies.

But not all spaces can handle a banquette.

Because the banquette seat typically must be about 20 inches deep for comfortable sitting, and diners typically want at least 24 to 30 inches in front of them, you must have at least a 4 foot by 4 foot space if you use the smallest table, said Kevin Heisner, designer and partner with Heisler Hospitality, which owns and operates several banquette-heavy restaurants and bars in Chicago.

And don’t overestimate bench capacity: most diners want 18 to 24 inches of personal space, so even a 5-foot bench will only handle about three people.

Bench design

Banquette shapes generally follow the natural curve of the nook they occupy and can be L-shaped, V-shaped, U-shaped, or, if there’s no corner, flat against a wall. Faced with a challenging 45-degree wall on a recent project, JamesThomas designed a U-shaped banquette and paired it with an oval table, Riker said.

Whether you’re getting a custom built-in or choosing a free-standing bench, consider details like the pitch of the back for comfort or whether the seat has a lip to hold a cushion in place, Riker said.

If you’re using a free-standing bench, sofa or settee, which can sometimes be low-slung, make sure the seat is high enough for the table, Riker said. If most tables are 30 inches high, you don’t want the bench seat to be any less than 17 or 18 inches high.

Before you invest a few thousand dollars in a custom built-in, create a mock-up with plywood to make sure the dimensions and design are as you want them, Heisner said.

Table design

Because diners must be able to slide into a bench fixed against the wall, it is important that the table legs don’t get in the way. Choose a table with a trestle, pedestal or inset legs; a table with perpendicular legs at its corners simply won’t work, Riker said.

Whether you choose a rectangular, square, round or oval table depends on the feel of the space as well as the dimensions of the benches. Typically a round or oval table will soften the space, while a rectangular table has a more modern feel, Heisner said.

Fabric

When used as casual kitchen seating, especially when there are kids bouncing around, banquettes upholstered in outdoor fabrics that wipe clean with a rag can be a major sweat-saver, Riker said. Most fabric brands offer outdoor lines in non-outdoor-feeling fabrics like linen, velvet and chenille.

For a more formal look, a high-backed banquette upholstered in velvet or leather, perhaps with tufting, can be a dramatic focal point of the room, he said.

Banquette benches are easy to reupholster or slipcover so they present a good opportunity to perk up a room with different colors and prints, Storms said.

They also invite fun throw pillows, which “add a hint of luxuriousness that we might not all expect to see in our kitchens,” Riker said.

Other seating

When choosing the seating that goes on the non-wall side of the banquette, opt for chairs rather than another bench, Riker said. Too many benches is “too much visual stimulation,” Riker said, and it’s always useful to have extra dining chairs to move around. Also, some people don’t like sliding in and out or inconveniencing other diners every time they have to leave the table, so it’s best to offer traditional seating options.

You also might consider pairing a banquette with stools on the open side, as you can store them under the table when you’re not using them, Heisner said.

Banquettes without built-ins

Two options for a DIY banquette:

Sectional: The Coventry line of sectionals at Ballard Designs is meant to “create the perfect dining nook” by mixing and matching benches with a corner piece. Benches come in 20-, 36- and 48-inch lengths, including storage benches, and over 180 fabrics. $899-$2,277 at ballarddesigns.com.

Bench: Pushed against the wall, the Greyson Black Eco Bench from Arhaus has a saloon quality with a classic tufted back and 60-inch-wide seat that can cradle three people. $749 at arhaus.com.

This post was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 15, 2013.

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