14 Decorating Tips From a Darlin’ Dining Room

The other night I was lucky to be invited to my friend Valerie Smith’s for dinner in East Hampton. Valerie is a designer and the beauty and brains behind East Hampton’s beloved  Monogram Shop, the go-to place for hostess gifts and great things for the house. Just visiting the shop is an inspiration, so imagine what it’s like visiting her house. A mere walk around her dining room yields a trove of ideas you can put to use right now. But who’s counting? We are, that’s who.

Valerie Smith
Valerie Smith's darlin' dining room

(1) The dining room is a thoroughfare between living room, kitchen and porch, so it is very much part of daily life in the house as opposed to a destination for special occasions. I once wrote about a house in California with the dining table smack in the entrance hall. It’s genius when you think about it. Valerie’s is the same idea.

Valerie Smith
The tablesetting

Roses from the garden and a mixture of silver and crystal, with clear votives for sparkle, set a  simply beautiful table. (2) Note the three small bouquets instead of a single centerpiece. (3) The tablecloth doesn’t quite cover the ends and so what. (4) Napkins draped over the chair backs are a stylish gesture, and it keeps the small table from becoming cluttered. (5) Are those tea towels posing as napkins? There’s another fun idea. (6) Napkins could be a number of things–tea towels, cotton scarves, bandanas, vintage linen hand towels…

Valerie Smith
Valerie's mantle is a pleasing vignette of topiary, candlesticks, and china. The antique lamps are a nice touch.

What a charming thing it is to have a fireplace in the dining room. This one is real, but it occurs to me that (7) you could prop up a pretty old salvaged mantle–there are all sizes and styles–and create the feeling of a fireplace, and that could be charming, too. (8) Mantles are such versatile settings for displaying collections of all sorts of things (as Valerie does) and for changing with the seasons–or your mood.

Valerie Smith cupboard
A closet as cabinet.

In the corner is what was presumably a closet with a door. (9) But here the door is removed and the closet is fitted with shelves and wiring to become a beautiful, lighted walk-in cabinet. How clever is that.

Valerie Smith plates
Valerie loves plates and so do I.

(10) Would you ever think of hanging a sconce on a door? Well, the door from the entrance/sitting room to the dining room and rest of the house is always open, so why not hang a beautiful sconce there to light the way? The only thing you have to watch about this is if you have a crowded party and someone stands near it and her hair catches on fire. (-1) I must ask Valerie if that has ever happened.

Valerie Smith sconce
An elegant antique mirrored sconce is mounted un-self-consciously on a door.
Valerie Smith
View toward the entrance room

(11) Simple red matchstick blinds add color without clutter and without great expense. (12) A floor lamp with a pretty silk shade adds to the glow. (13) Notice there is only lamp- and candlelight, flattering and warm. (14) The absence of an overhead light also enhances the room’s openness.

Isn’t it great how this one little room is so full of ideas? That’s Valerie for you. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Well, maybe I will another time. … Oh, and dinner was delicious. Lambchops and a wonderful salad of tomato, avocado, and mozarella. (15) She uses a melon-baller to scoop out the avocado. I never thought of that either, but it’s not one of the 14 decorating tips, I just got carried away with the numbering thing.

Photos by Frances, taken with Valerie’s phone.


  1. Dear Frances, I love all of Valerie and your ideas. I especially love the idea of a DR table existing as a part of daily life as opposed as a destination rarely used. Ours is totally a destination, hence it stands as an out of the way place for organizing and hiding family projects and hardly ever gets used as a dining venue. I must try to change that!

  2. Absolutely love the sconce on the door… and what a charming one at that! I once visited a home in Brookline,MA that had so many wonderful views of Boston and other great art that it was hung on kitchen cabinets,the front of doors and even the BACK of doors; but a SCONCE on a door. That’s clever! Thanks for sharing that novel idea.

  3. I love your mantle idea! There’s something so romantic about a fireplace (or a “faux” fireplace)in a dining room – or anywhere else for that matter. A great idea-filled post, Frances!

  4. Love the melon-baller idea for the avocado! How many balls do you think that one can get out of a standard sized avocado ??? I’ll try it over the 4th … Your blog is informative AND hilarious, Frances.

  5. Heartfelt thanks for this lovely post! Your blog always inspires and makes me laugh. Planning a very special dinner for a Fairy Godmother visit in October and this post has given me some lovely ideas. Wishing you and the Cowboy a glorious, happy and magnifico 4th! Every time I think of your posts from France, I crack up. Magnifico!

  6. I also love the idea of using the melon baller on avocado. Just perfect with fresh mozzarella balls and small grape tomatoes or any variety for that matter. A toss of fresh basil evo for a perfect summer lady lunch.

    1. Thank you all so much for these lovely comments. This was such a fun post and I love that y’all loved it!

  7. Got in late on this one but love the tips on lighting. For me so very important. Am also going to pull out Grandma’s handtowels for napkins. Got bundles!

  8. the DEMOLITION of my charleston kitchen starts monday so cross your fingers that it is finished in 6weeks..i am trying re-do a 200 yr old eat-in kitchen w FP……and desperately need any ideas of tall hanging/sliding doors to close off one half of the room when we dine by candlelite—any ideas?? (will send pics of before and after) and anyone nearby is welcome to call/see/stay/visit/etc..(this my only blog–and the only one i need!! frances–it is great !!)..love adrienne

    1. Adrienne, thank you so much for writing and good luck with this project. Please do send photos and keep me posted! xo Frances

  9. Love, love, LOVE every image of Valerie Smith’s house I’ve ever seen. They are all so full of tiny, charming details that they never disappoint.
    Thank you for this visual feast.

    1. You are so welcome, Linda, and thank you for writing. You are sure right about Valerie’s house and indeed Valerie’s everything!

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