Decorating a small apartment is usually more about function than fun. Reading and breakfast nooks are an occasional luxury. But a dining room? Dream on.

Before you resign yourself to eating on the couch, though, consider the kitchen counter. Not only is it your best bet at a makeshift dining area without having to squeeze in a table, but it’s a social magnet: Even in homes with formal dining rooms, the counter is the hub of activity.

But how do you make the most out of a stationary slab? Start with a stylish set of stools.

“It doesn’t matter how huge or tiny your home is, people will congregate in the kitchen,” says Marika Meyer, a D.C. interior designer who is known for blending clean lines with feminine patterns and bold doses of color. “You might as well make it comfortable.”

Meyer says that stools are a favorite decorating tool for designers, and it’s clear why: Extra seating is never a bad idea, and they can bring a splash of color or texture to a dull space without the commitment of hanging art or painting the walls. And while they do subtly enhance a room much like a brightly patterned settee or accent chair, stools are less aesthetically risky because they’re usually bought in pairs, which means the color or print will be naturally repeated.

“You can be a little more daring,” Meyer said of experimenting with louder colors. “Stools do wonders for tying a color scheme together.” For some playful color, try Aeon’s Galaxy stools, which are industrial, metal bistro stools in a range of summery hues such as lime and orange ($140 for a set of two, www.target.com).

Of course, the type of stool you need depends on your countertop arrangement, which varies from home to home.


Room and Board’s Radius stool ($179). (Room & Board)

Target’s Aeon Galaxy bar stool ($140 for a pair). (Target)

Measurements are crucial when shopping for stools, and Meyer recommends leaving about 12 inches of space between the height of the stool and the height of the counter to keep guests comfortable (most counters measure 36 inches high, so look for stools that are around 24 inches). It’s also worth noting that bar stools and counter stools are not the same; bar height is closer to 40 inches, which means bar stools will often be 28 to 30 inches high.

For apartments with kitchen islands, placement is fairly obvious: The stools should slide right up to the counter’s edge. And be sure to mind the seat’s depth, especially if you’re planning to arrange seating between the island and a nearby wall. Round stools, or stools with rounded edges, come in handy in spaces like this because they allow guests to swivel and face each other comfortably without feeling squished. The Era Backless Counter Stool from Design Within Reach is simple yet sturdy ($150-$179, www.dwr.com), but at 18 3/4 inches across, it may be too wide for some. Room and Board’s similar-sized Tiffany Counter Stool is more expensive ($329, www.roomandboard.com) but comes in a clear, lucite plastic that can be handy for rooms that run the risk of looking cluttered.

Target’s Napa Distressed Counter Stools ($70, www.target.com) are just 10 inches deep and have a rustic feel. Home Depot carries a Chestnut Brody Scoop Seat stool by Carolina Cottage ($129 each, www.homedepot.com) for something a little more modern.

If there’s no room in the kitchen for any seating, try creating a small, makeshift counter in the living room with a high pub table. They typically measure counter height (36 inches) if not higher, and take up about as much as space as a thin desk. Many come with a pair of matching stools that tuck underneath like nesting tables. Dorel Home Furnishings’ three-piece bar set ($165, www.sears.com) even includes open shelves for storage.

There’s a stool for pretty much any decorating style. Windsor-back stools (such as the Verona Arrow Back Stool, $176, www.overstock.com) are popular in traditional homes and look great in a room with a high ceiling, and saddle stools with perforated leather seats can look nice in a setting with more masculine design.

Meyer has a favorite, though: CB2’s acrylic Vapor stool ($189-$199, www.cb2.com) which she called “the miracle” stool for its ability to solve just about any decorating problem.

“It’s lightweight, elegant, yet also modern,” she said, “and it lets the space breathe. You can put three or four in a tight space and they just disappear.”

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Creative dresser options for small spaces

Room dividers that can save studios and open-concept spaces

Buerger is a freelance writer.