Interior designer Tricia Huntley took to design at a young age, voted by her eighth grade peers as the student most likely to become an interior designer.
“I collected Architectural Digest and other magazines, and starting drawing floor plans in grammar school,” Huntley said.
The Washington designer is now tackling residential and commercial projects throughout the national capital area and beyond, with her firm Huntley and Co. Interior Design. Her self-described “American luxe” aesthetic runs the gamut of traditional and modern, and earned her a coveted spot in the 2012 DC Design House.
With holiday parties and family gatherings coming up, we asked Huntley for her advice on holiday and dining room decorating, how to handle last-minute guests and more.
Q: Imagine you have a blank, empty dining room. Where do you start?
A: You really should start with your table and chairs. They set the tone and should speak to your personality and lifestyle. I love to mix genres in the dining room. Maybe you have an antique French walnut table with contemporary metal chairs, or a marble Saarinen table with your grandmother’s set of carved Louis XVI chairs.
Q: After the table and chairs, what else should you consider?
A: I do think the dining room is a space where people should up the glamour, take risks and really create a sense of magic. I love dramatic wallpapers like Gracie and de Gournay in the dining room, and I love high-gloss paint in dramatic shades.
Lighting is important, too. Always use a chandelier, and this is one of those opportunities to take a risk. It’s really fun to dazzle guests with a chandelier. I also love sconces because they bring light to eye level, and are almost like the jewelry of a room. And never forget the candles. Try tall, elegant tapers and votives.
It’s important that the scale of your furniture work within the size of the room, too. Feeling good in a space has a lot to do with proportions.
Q: Speaking of the size of the room, how do you approach a small or large dining room?
A: When I have clients who start in a smaller house and move to a larger one, [I tell them] you can save money by draping your table. When you drape it with fabrics, you can make it appear as big as it needs to be. You can also get funky chairs that have a lot of chicness for not a lot of cost. ... And make sure the walls have something on them.
For a smaller room, it’s all about having visual space. Instead of doing a draped table, try a clear lucite table. The transparency creates volume where it doesn’t exist. That’s true of all spaces.
Q: Do your decorating decisions for a dining room change based on the entertaining style?
A: In terms of the table setting, yes, absolutely. Every gathering or event has its own particular mood, so it’s important to reflect and embrace that with dinnerware, linens, lighting. I will change the foundation of a room for parties if the number of guests exceeds the size of my table. Then my dining table becomes a buffet and we dine more casually in the adjacent rooms.
Q: Do you prefer buffet style, or some other serving style? How do you prepare the adjacent rooms if your dining room is serving as the buffet?
A: I’m absolutely a fan of serving buffet-style. It gives me the opportunity to create a looser, more interesting tablescape. And if you are serving in a room other than a dining room, the options open up even more. I love setting a coffee table in the living room with hors-d'oeuvres because I can play up the lower height with very tall candles or flowers.
And don’t underestimate the power of sequencing. Guiding guests from one room to another with food is a wonderfully subtle way to add a sense of procession to the evening.
Q: What are some of the mistakes people make when trying to prepare their dining rooms for a family gathering?
A: Creating an overly fussy, formal table is a mistake. Very formal flower arrangements, perfectly matched sets of china, all-white linens. All of that can be so severe. A holiday table should feel welcoming and somewhat magical. I like to add unexpected touches, like a mix of dinnerware and scattered fruit on the table. It creates a lighter, more joyful atmosphere.
And people often think that their guests always want choices. If you have arranged place settings, it can take the awkwardness out of the initial seating. It’s an opportunity, really, to reacquaint family members. Just tell people where to sit.
Q: How do you prepare your home for a holiday gathering?
A: I am all about trying to take the edge off holidays. I like trying to make them fun for people, making sure it is warm and welcoming — the spirit of it being fun. It’s not about pomp and circumstance for me.
Q: How do kids fit in?
A: I don’t believe in kid-proofing. I believe in kid-empowering. It sounds cheesy, but you can’t expect to have a chic, glamorous party and have kids behave. ... I had a dinner party just a few months ago, and a friend brought her daughter unexpectedly. She had a meltdown.
You need to have something for them to do. You can have kids do a baking thing or a crafting thing, or have them decorate their own table. Buy a cheap cloth, overlay that on top of a nice table cloth and give them markers. Have them bring out their inner Picasso or turn it into a contest.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for holiday decorating?
A: Nature is my perpetual muse. Sometimes in a down-to-earth manner and sometimes in a fantastical way. A photograph I shot of tree bark ... once inspired the color scheme for an autumn table setting.
Q: What’s a simple trick or way to incorporate nature?
A: Try branches. A grouping of bare branches from the back yard, artfully arranged in a vase, can be very sculptural. It’s all about creating volume and scale in an understated way.
Q: Any last-minute ways to refresh a dining room without a total overhaul?
A: You should go minimal: Put away the pillows and unnecessary items that may have found their way into your room. Just try streamlining as much as possible. A bare sideboard lined with a single row of candles can be very striking.
Q: What about accommodating last-minute guests?
A: You should put them to work! You will need the help, and guests like to feel useful.