A dinner party prompts a dining room refresh

The prospect of hosting a dinner party at my house filled my heart with panic. I had been wanting to update my dining room. Suddenly, I had an incentive — and a deadline.

The dinner party wasn’t my idea. A few months ago, a friend hatched a plan to auction off a dinner for eight at my house for an Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra fundraiser.

“You know how your column is At Home With Marni?” was how she framed it. “Well, this would let people actually be at home with Marni. Get it?”

Oh, I got it. If I’d known when I started writing a home design column what all I’d be getting myself into, I would have become a pet therapist. People assume I live up to my words! Before I agreed — and because no one should pay to eat my cooking — I called a chef I knew to see if he’d help. Chef Angelo Bersani generously agreed to donate his time to prepare and serve dinner, if I paid for the groceries. Done! Chef and I became a package deal on the auction block.

I live in the real world, so redecorating does not mean tossing all my furniture and starting over. It means working with what I have and making small refinements to get, ideally, big results. The trick, however, is knowing what those small moves are. So I called Los Angeles interior designer and long-time friend Christopher Grubb for help, asking if he’d call the shots while I did the legwork, which included shopping for materials, gathering samples and coordinating workers.

With a chef and a designer on board, I could feel my lungs fully expanding, my blood pressure dropping. Over the next eight weeks, we exchanged dozens of texts, photos and a few sobbing emojis, and made the following small refinements, which yielded big results, and just might do the same for a room or two in your home:

Added lampshades: Although I had replaced the dining room’s dated light fixture a few years ago, I had not “finished” the fixture off with chandelier shades, which Grubb advised. I test drove three shade styles, ordering one of each and returning the rejects, before settling on a black tapered shade. Because black shades direct light down, not out, they can make lighting more dramatic.

Filled in the art niche: Art niches in walls can be difficult to work with, as they limit the size of art you can hang in them. The niche in my dining room’s accent wall was 5-feet square and 3-inches deep. Until recently, a large tapestry hung over the niche and covered it. But, as part of my attempt to make the space more contemporary, I sold the tapestry and now had this, uhh, hole in the wall. “Art niches just make you ask why?” said Grubb, who recommended having a drywaller fill it in.

BEFORE: A shadeless chandelier, dated chairs and a wall niche that limited art options. (Courtesy Marni Jameson) 

Put up wallpaper: To make the open room feel cozier and more intimate and to distinguish the alcove  from the entryway, Grubb suggested covering the now smooth back wall and ceiling with sea-blue grasscloth, which added character and texture to the room.

Replaced mirrors: Although Grubb liked the idea of two mirrors flanking the art on the main wall, he suggested replacing the existing round ones with larger, vertical mirrors to make the room appear taller. Since we were moving toward a more transitional and less traditional look, we kept the frames simple.

Updated end chairs: Although our goal is to replace all the tapestry-covered dining chairs with more contemporary seating but keep the existing table, here we hit an impasse. I couldn’t find any chairs I liked that would also be available in time for my dinner party. Rather than compromise, I bought the chairs I wanted and accepted the fact that they wouldn’t arrive until September. Darn that supply chain. Meanwhile, I recovered the table’s two armchairs in a bold zebra-print fabric and painted the wood lacquer black. These chairs, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, are now fixtures in my living room, but for dinner parties they double as end chairs.

Added ambiance: With the new furnishings in place, all I needed to do was add the finishing touches — a fresh centerpiece of pale roses, patterned table linens, crystal and silver, candles and, of course, illustrious guests — to make the room come together like a symphony.

Marni Jameson is the author of seven books, including the recent “Rightsize Today to Create Your Best Life Tomorrow.” Contact her at [email protected]. Join her on May 23 for a free, virtual event, “Rightsize Your Life and Live Well Now.” Register at https://extras.mercurynews.com/events/.