Inside: absolutely everything you need to know about choosing kitchen counter stools…plus a free guide!
Live jazz, soft lighting, and my husband. As I sat down at the bar, I was contemplating indulging in a Manhattan.
Suddenly, the mood shifted from romantic to absurd. Sitting at the too-low bar stool, I felt like a child. Even my tall husband looked a bit silly with the bar hitting high on his chest.
There’s a lot to consider when picking counter or bar stools. Homeowners agonize about it in kitchen forums. Even professional designers sometimes get it wrong—as my husband and I experienced at that posh hotel bar. The truth is that counters and stools aren’t as standardized as dining room tables and chairs.
In this post, I’ll go over six mistakes to avoid when you pick your kitchen counter stools:
- too high or too low;
- not child-friendly;
- swivel stool back smashes against counter edge;
- buying too many or too few; and
- stools don’t work with room decor.
Oh, and be sure to grab the No Regrets Guide to Picking Counter Stools at the bottom of this post. It includes worksheets that help with measuring and planning your counter seating.
Mistake #1: counter stools are too high or too low
This is one of the most common mistakes people make when picking stools. Either the stool is too low and you end up feeling like Goldilocks sitting at a counter that is too high. Or, the stool is too high and there’s no room to cross your legs under the counter.
Why does this happen?
- a bar stool is mismatched with a standard counter (36 inches);
- a counter stool is mismatched with a bar height counter (42 inches);
- the stool is a non-standard height; or
- the counter height is non-standard.
This mismatch is easy to prevent. When selecting a counter stool, measure the height of the counter. A good rule of thumb is that the seat of the stool should be 12 inches below the underside of the counter.
Product names can be misleading. Don’t assume that a “counter stool” or “bar stool” will match your standard counter or home bar. Check the seat height before purchasing, by measuring or checking product measurements online.
Also, be aware that seat height will be lower than expected if the seat has soft cushioning.
Matching a non-standard counter height to a stool is a common challenge. Our kitchen has a 39-inch island to accommodate my husband.
The simplest solutions are to:
- pick an adjustable stool that falls within the right seat height range or
- buy a taller-than-needed stool and cut the legs to measure.
We picked adjustable counter stools inspired by 1940s draftsman’s chairs. See the photo showing the Restoration Hardware Vintage Toledo Bar Chairs in our kitchen. They adjust perfectly to match our taller-than-standard island.
Mistake #2: counter stools are uncomfortable
You’d be surprised to know how often people regret buying uncomfortable stools.
Do you see yourself sitting at your counter for a quick five-minute coffee? Perhaps you’ll be perching there while you open mail? If so, comfort may not be a big deal.
But maybe you imagine your kids doing homework at the kitchen island? Or guests lingering over cocktails and appetizers while you finish up dinner? For longer and more relaxed seating, you’ll want to make comfort a priority.
Padding and upholstery
For comfort, pick stools with a bit of cushion in the seat and back. Especially if some family members or guests have less “built-in padding”. Some options:
- pick stools that are padded and upholstered: if spills will be an issue, consider wipe-able materials like Crypton fabric, leather, or vinyl (also known as “vegan leather”);
- add detachable seat pads: many can be washed, and they can be replaced if necessary.
Also, keep in mind that fabric will be more comfortable in rooms that are hot and sticky, or chilly.
Unless your counter has a built-in footrest, you’ll want to pick a stool with a footrest. See the Fayucaville photo for an example of a built-in (copper!) footrest. Unlike a dining room chair, most people will not be able to rest their feet on the ground when sitting on a counter stool. People tend to feel uneasy when their feet dangle, so a footrest is a must for comfort.
Backless stools do have their merits. They’re perfect for the minimalist look, and they tuck nicely under the counter too. But if comfort is a priority, you’ll want a stool with a back. For relaxed lounging, a backless stool won’t cut it.
There is no tactful way to put this. Seats should match bums. For most adults, wider and deeper seats are more comfortable. But there are constraints to this:
- if your countertop overhang is shallow, a deep seat will cause knees to bump the underside;
- a too-deep seat may also cause the stool to extend too far back from the countertop edge—especially if there’s a passageway; and
- if your countertop width is narrow, fewer wide stools will fit along that space.
Swiveling is a feature that can add to comfort, allowing people to move around a bit while they sit casually.
- swiveling stools take up more width along a small countertop and
- see mistake #4 below.
Mistake #3: counter stools are not child-friendly
You’re unloading the dishwasher or chopping veggies. Your kids are eating breakfast or doing homework at the kitchen island. For a family-friendly kitchen, the key is picking seating that works for kids.
Seat with back
Kids generally do better with stools that have a back. Having a seat back seems to provide some grounding, especially for wiggly little ones. But, see mistake #4 below.
In my experience, kids tend to sit longer when seats are comfortably padded. As adults, we tend to forget that kids often have less padding on their behinds. If the goal is to have kids doing homework or eating full meals, some cushioning may be a good idea.
Of course, kids often mean messes and spills. More child-friendly options for upholstery include:
- Crypton fabric: I’ve seen this stain-proof fabric hold up very well on 16-year-old dining chairs used by all ages in a common space;
- dark and/or patterned fabrics;
- leather with wipe-able finish;
- vinyl (also known as “vegan leather”); or
- add a detachable seat pad.
Most kids love to sit on stools with a swivel. But, watch for mistake #4 below.
Mistake #4: swivel stool back smashes against counter edge
Do you have restless folks sitting at your counter? We do. In that case, you might want to rethink pairing a stone counter with a swivel stool that has a hard back. Over time, a hard stool back that bumps against the counter edge will weather some damage. We’ve definitely seen some wear on our stools as a result of this.
- pick a stool that doesn’t swivel;
- pick a stool with no back—best for stools that will be used briefly; or
- pick a stool with a cushioned/upholstered back.
They weren’t available at the time that we purchased our stools (and they definitely are spendy), but the leather version of the Toledo Bar Chair may have been a better choice for us.
Mistake #5: buying too many or too few counter stools
Kitchen space constraints typically determine the number of seats that will fit. In addition to the width of the actual stool, you’ll need enough space between stools to sit down or stand up. You’ll need more space if the stool swivels: to make room for knees as the seat rotates sideways. Grab the No Regrets Guide to Picking Counter Stools below to figure out how many stools you have space for.
If you’re on the fence about how many stools to buy, err on the side of buying more. You might find the perfect stool and buy three of them. If you later decide that you want to add a fourth, you risk disappointment. Many open stock counter or bar stools go out of stock when you least expect it.
Mistake #6: counter stools don’t work with room decor
Counter stools should complement and add to the room’s decor. In this section, I’ll go over some design principles that can help.
Does it really matter what the counter stools look like? Yes and no.
Go for visual impact if your counter stools will be seen along important sightlines. Focus on what you see when you enter a room or sit down, rather than what you see as you walk through a room.
If counter stools are less visible, focus on comfort and practicality.
In general, you’ll want a counter stool that fits the overall style of the room. Some interior decor styles include:
- shabby chic
Many spaces are a blend of styles. Avoid picking counter stools that clash with the room style—unless you’re doing it as a statement.
Open concept rooms
Picking counter stools for an open concept room can be more complicated. The counter stool style, colour, and material should complement:
- kitchen finishes;
- dining area furniture and finishes (if applicable); and
- living area furniture and finishes (if applicable).
Contrast is one of the most important design principles. Some positive contrast is great when counter stools are highly visible. Here are some suggestions for how to add contrast:
- your island or peninsula is patterned or highly textured or visually busy: consider simple stools with clean lines;
- the island or peninsula is neutral: consider stools that add a pop of colour or have a complicated shape (we did the latter in our kitchen—see the photo);
- for a dark peninsula: consider stools that are light in colour/tone;
- if your island or peninsula is light; consider stools that are dark in colour/tone;
- for a space with lots of wood: consider stools that have metal, fabric, leather, or plexiglas; and
- when there are lots of hard surfaces in the space: pick stools that bring in some softness with fabric, leather, or cushioning.
Notice how often contrast is used in the photos of kitchen counter stools that inspire you.
I created a Pinterest board with some counter stool inspiration. Click on the board below to see what I’ve been pinning. You’ll see great examples of some of the design principles that I’ve discussed here.
Don’t forget to follow me on Pinterest!
Free! No regrets guide to picking kitchen counter stools
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Do you already have kitchen counter stools? If so, do you love or hate yours? Let me know in the comments below.
Hi there we have blueish / green stained cabinets with medium grey counter, our couch is a light speckled grey ( heather ) & Dark hardwood flooring
Would you go with a fabric that matches the couch or a darker heather grey fabric for the bar stools.
Brenda Hailey says
Hi, I have Lunar pearl granite counters. What color stool would go with that? Thank you.
I need help! We have had two sets of counter stools in three years and already need to buy a third set! I love the stools when we get them, but the padding wears out quickly and before you know it, you feel like you’re sitting on the wood frame of the stool and not the cushion. Do you know of any stools that are not padded that are actually comfortable to sit at for an extended period of time or any padded stools that actually last? I prefer backless (or low back) so we can tuck them under the counter when not in use.
Thank you for your help!
I have a huge white quartz island with space for 2 counter stools on one side of the island and 2 more on the left side of it. I have 2 acrylic seat and gold leg stools with backrest on one side. Planning to get 2 more for the other side. Will it work if I get different ones for the other side in a neutral color and gold without the backrest so it can be tucked under the island when not in use.
Hi I have a white kitchen cabinets with a chicory coloured island. My floors are hardwood and are a medium brown colour.
My kitchen table is walnut so are the chairs and they look a little country like.
I’m stuck I don’t know what to choose for counter stools. Should I go upholstered. Or should I go white wooden stool. I’ve looked at hundreds and just can’t make up my mind. I would love some help.
I have quarter sawn oak cabinets with dark stain. I have a reclaimed oak floor . The granite is black pearl in a leathered look. My house is a cabin renovation which has an open concept . I have a large brown leather sectional that will be part of that great room area. My island is counter height 5×10. I have s an antique copper sink and exhaust hood with a Wolfe stove. I’m tryiing to figure out what to buy. I was thinking a brown leather.
Hi Sally! I think brown leather counter stools sound great! Look for more rustic and distressed styles to go with the vibe of your house. Sounds lovely. Let me know how it goes 🙂
Melissa McGowan says
Hi, not sure if you are still checking this but I would love some advice. We have white cabinets, dark hardwood floors and light granite with flecks of black and red. I am planning on doing black pendent lighting above the kitchen island to match some hardware in the mud room but I can’t figure out what color stools to get. The island cabinets are dark brown, but on the side where the stools will be is drywall and that is light gray, as are all the walls. It’s an open kitchen so I would like big, chunky, comfy, kid-friendly seating. I’m afraid red would look too diner-ish. Would black work to go with the lighting? And then, most of those sort of stools seem to have have dark brown legs so would that blend too much with the floor? Any help is much appreciated!!
Hi Melissa! Your kitchen is such a great example of how challenging it is to pick kitchen counter stools with all of the finishes that we tend to have. I think your idea of black will work, but black-stained wood or distressed black will look less harsh with the natural finishes that you have in your kitchen. Scroll up to my photo above (Restoration Hardware Vintage Toledo Bar Chairs in my kitchen) to see how a softer black looks against a grey island backdrop. Another suggestion would be to pick a stool that combines black and brown. Overall it may look softer with the granite and wood finishes. Here is an inspo photo of what I have in mind: https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/490610953153086935/ . I think stools like those would also be big, chunky, comfy and kid-friendly. I haven’t looked up a source for those. Thanks for reaching out and good luck! Remember to measure, measure, measure!
Lesley Doumaux says
Hi, I was wondering if I could get espresso bar stools with a pop of color on the leather upholstery if I have cherry wood cabinets and a cherry wood table with ivory color chairs. my floor is a neutral color and my counters are white with gray and pale Brown throughout to pick up the neutral colors in the floor and the charger cabinet I just didn’t want the schools to clash too much
Cherry wood cabinets and table make quite a statement! Your idea of espresso bar stools with coloured leather may work fine in your space. But it might be easier to coordinate bar stools that don’t have a wood finish. Some options to consider: painted wood, metal, rattan, upholstered, leather, etc. See my Pinterest board for more ideas. I hope that helps!
Aden Rossinni says
Do you know of any kitchen height stools that can be lowered to a standard table height as well?
Great question Aden! I haven’t personally seen these stools in person (thus I cannot vouch for them), but I found a couple of options:
Please let me know if you end up finding an option that works for you!
I am so glad I received this guide before buying our stools. We put together a bar and didn’t think of the impact it would have on buying the right stools. I used your guide and got the perfect stools at the right height. I thought I needed 4 but your guide said 3, so we went with 3 and they fit perfectly. A 4th stool would have been unnecessary. So thank you for saving us some money as well.
Dionne, I am so pleased that this guide helped you!
Linda Marie Ware says
I wish I’d read this before I chose my stools. They are too ornate and large for the area. Also loved the Pinterest board. Lots of ideas.
Gosh! Bummer that the stools that you bought aren’t working in the space 🙁 . Most of us didn’t grow up with this type of seating, so it’s a learning curve!