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.