When most of us think about furniture, our minds conjure the obvious: chairs, sofas, daybeds. But there’s another option, and it’s one that is not only welcoming and enveloping, but also relatively compact: the built-in banquette.
“A banquette can really ground a room and make it feel cozy and nurturing,” said Nancy Ruddy, a founding principal of the New York-based architecture and design firm CetraRuddy. “It can also be a design focal point, as a contrast to free-floating furniture. In our single-family work, we’re integrating more and more of them.”
Although not as common in residential settings as sectional sofas, banquettes aren’t a new idea. The fireside inglenook — where built-in banquettes by a fireplace offered a place to warm up on chilly days — was a popular feature in homes more than a century ago, including some designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Ms. Ruddy noted.
Living room inglenooks fell out of favor when better insulation and heating systems came along, but designers are now exploring the joys of installing other kinds of banquettes, in other places. We asked the experts for advice.
Consider the Kitchen
If there is one room where a banquette is expected today, it is the eat-in kitchen, where it can provide seating for multiple people at one end of the kitchen or in a tight corner where multiple chairs won’t fit.
Frances Merrill, the founder of Los Angeles-based Reath Design, frequently uses banquettes to design kitchens that encourage casual conversation. In a midcentury-modern house she renovated in Altadena, Calif., she added a long banquette at the end of the kitchen, against a wall of windows. The owner of the house loves to cook, Ms. Merrill said, “and she was like, ‘I want people to hang out with me when I’m cooking.’”
In another renovation in Los Angeles, Ms. Merrill designed a U-shaped banquette beside the kitchen as the family’s main dining space, freeing up the old formal dining room for other purposes.
“This family was clear about how they wanted to live,” she said. “They were never going to use a formal dining room, so we turned it into a place to listen to records, sit on the floor, play games and hang out as a family.”
Banquettes can work just as well in smaller, open-concept apartments. When designing a model apartment for the condominium at 212 West 72nd Street, CetraRuddy installed a custom banquette instead of stools at a kitchen peninsula. Paired with a dining table and a couple of chairs, it serves as a proper dining area without intruding on the living room.
“The question was: In a compact two-bedroom apartment, how do you have enough space for eight people to eat?” Ms. Ruddy said. Not only does the banquette comfortably seat many guests, she said, but “we saved three and a half feet within the living room, which allowed more space for lounge furniture.”
Or Find Somewhere Else
A built-in perch can also work wonders along one wall of a proper dining room, making it feel less formal.
While renovating a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Hollis Jordyn Design built the dining room around a custom banquette. “We thought we could make it not only an area where you eat, but also a cozy place to spend time,” said Hollis LaPlante, who founded the firm with Jordyn Grohl. “We felt it almost needed a couch, so we did an upholstered banquette piled with pillows.’”
Now the dining room is as much a place for playing games or catching up on homework as it is for feeding guests.
Chiara de Rege, a New York-based interior designer, created a sophisticated play-and-homework space for older children in an Upper West Side apartment by squeezing a banquette into what was previously a wide hallway. “It just made sense to utilize this kind of dead space,” Ms. de Rege said.
She also added a built-in window seat — a sibling to the banquette — in one of the children’s bedrooms, to take advantage of an oblique view to Central Park.
Plan the Layout
A banquette can be straight, L-shaped, U-shaped or something else entirely. If it will be squeezed into an existing nook or a corner of a room, it can be designed to conform to the contours of the walls.
But banquettes can also carve out spaces of their own. In a large kitchen in Sierra Madre, Calif., Kirsten Blazek, the founder of the Pasadena-based interior design firm A1000xBetter, used the footprint of a banquette to create a space within a space. The piece extends along one wall, below a window, then makes a 90-degree turn into the room.
“When you’re working with open spaces, it can be tricky to make them feel cozy and delineated,” Ms. Blazek said. “Adding that return to the banquette makes it feel more enclosed.”
Some banquettes sit up on legs and resemble sectional sofas, but many sit on solid bases, creating space for extra storage inside. Ms. de Rege and Ms. Merrill routinely tuck pullout drawers into the bases of banquettes. Hollis Jordyn Design has added cabinets with stone tops at the ends of banquettes to create mini buffets.
Just don’t kid yourself about how accessible that extra storage space will be, Ms. Merrill said. Chairs and table legs will likely get in the way, so the extra space is best reserved for deep storage. “I’m only putting tablecloths that are used on holidays in there, and those kinds of things,” she said. “You don’t open it every day.”
Select the Fabric
A banquette can be designed with a wood base topped by loose cushions, or can be fully upholstered from top to bottom. Either way, you need to consider both pattern and performance when choosing fabric.
Many designers take the opportunity to do something expressive with the fabric.
“You can use pattern and color, because it’s built in, so it won’t invade the overall feeling of the room,” said Ms. Ruddy, who once used boldly patterned fabric from Turkey on a banquette. “By changing the mood at the banquette, it feels like its own destination, even though you’re only walking a few feet away.”
Depending on the design, another option is to use one fabric for the seat cushion and another for the back, she said.
Because most banquettes are used for dining, it’s also important to choose a fabric that is easy to clean. Ms. Blazek often goes with leather or a leather alternative. Ms. Merrill sometimes uses outdoor fabrics that are nearly indistinguishable from indoor fabrics, like the green performance velvet she recently used.
“It still has that lush velvet feeling,” she said, but it repels stains and stands up to a good scrubbing. “So it’s not completely irresponsible to stick it in a kitchen.”
Check Your Dimensions
There is also the seat back to consider, as well as the seat height and the overall depth of the banquette.
In the Sierra Madre kitchen, Ms. Blazek designed a backless banquette, to avoid obscuring the view out the window. If the banquette will have a back, adjusting the angle can change the feeling of the piece. A 15-degree recline can give the banquette a sofa-like feel, while an upright back will feel more like a dining chair. Often, the sweet spot is somewhere in between.
“You want to make sure the pitch is cozy, but that you can still sit up to eat food at the table,” Ms. LaPlante said.
Usually, the seat of a banquette should be at roughly the same height as any chairs used at the same table. “Eighteen inches is pretty typical,” Ms. Blazek said. But if you want it to feel more like a sofa, and dining won’t be the primary activity, you can make the seat an inch or two lower.
For the overall depth, 24 inches should be considered the minimum, Ms. Merrill said, although she sometimes designs banquettes that have sections with varying depths. Recently, while designing an L-shaped banquette, she put a shallow section along the length of the dining table and added a couple of inches to the depth of the section that extended beyond the table, creating a place to lounge.
“There are no hard and fast rules,” she said. “It’s really about being clear about what you want to achieve and adjusting it from there.”
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