When you’re decorating a room, it’s easy to get obsessed with what covers the floor and walls. But what about the roof?
It rarely gets much attention – beyond a coat of flat white paint. This is a missed opportunity.
“Leaving the ceiling behind—when you dissolve other surfaces in a room—not only looks unfortunate, but also upsets the balance,” said New York designer Stephen Gambrell. “If I have texture on the walls or texture on the floor that’s personal, I try to give the top surface the same level of patina—or dramatic contrast.”
The way Corey Damen Jenkins, a New York-based interior designer, sees it, the ceiling may be more important than the walls.
“In a room, you usually have six planes—four walls, the floor and the ceiling—but the ceiling is the only plane that isn’t obstructed by artwork and furniture,” said Jenkins, who is no stranger to making big statements over our heads. “Sometimes I start there and work my way down.”
Ceiling decorating is especially important in rooms that guests will see, including “powder rooms, bars, libraries, dining rooms, and places where you might have a cocktail or dine,” said Verne Santini, a designer based in Austin, Texas. “You can do fun things to create fun rooms with an instant mood.”
We asked a few designers to walk us through the process step by step.
Make it reflective
When Gambrel wants an accent ceiling, he sometimes gives it the mirror-like finish of a high-gloss paint. “This, of course, brings in a lot of light, which means the light starts to bounce across the ceiling,” he said. “It adds a little polish.”
To achieve the finish he wants, he uses several coats of a high-gloss Hollandlac enamel from Fine Paints of Europe. But since a glossy surface will reveal any imperfections, the ceiling needs to be primed and sanded perfectly smooth first. Gambrel used neutral colors to simply reflect more light around the room, but he also created eye-catching ceilings with colors like vibrant peachy pink and coral.
Jenkins achieved a similar look in the dining room with polished-to-high-gloss Venetian plaster. “It looks like a puddle of water on the ceiling upside down,” he said.In another project, consider installing an antique mirror on the ceiling, but when the budget doesn’t allow for it, use a glossy Cole & Son wallcovering called Antique Mirror to achieve a similar effect. “I really wanted him for this room,” he said. “The ceiling lifts up all the space.”
Add a metallic touch
Adding a metallic finish to the ceiling will also make it shine. One option is to apply gold leaf or some other metallic leaf to the drywall or use wallcovering for the same look.
Santini once used gold-leaf wallpaper from Phillip Jeffries in a master bedroom, running it across the ceiling and down the top of the walls to create an effect like an upside-down tray.
“The gold leaf is just a pretty way to do a ceiling,” she said. “It reflects light, but it’s very soft. It’s not in your face or too flashy.”
Douglas C. Wright, a New York architect, added pressed tin to the ceiling of a Connecticut kitchen and left it unpainted—an old idea that adds texture and shine.
“We had to work with a low ceiling, and the tin ceiling reflects a lot of light,” Wright said. “He took what were kind of dark, gloomy spaces and made them bright and warm and cozy.”
Blow it up with a pattern
Despite its name, wallpaper isn’t just for walls. While it’s most commonly applied to vertical surfaces, it’s also fun on a ceiling.
Jenkins designed rooms with wallpapered ceilings featuring elaborate flowers, clouds, and multicolored marble patterns. Santini once designed a kitchen with a ceiling covered in a swarm of photographed honeybees, thanks to wallpaper from Timorous Beasties.
“We could have painted it white,” she said, “and it would have been so boring.” “This is another layer that makes the room so much fun.”
In another home, she did something more elaborate: She covered the ceiling of a bookcase and bar with brightly colored laser-cut cowhide, gathered in a large-scale floral pattern by Kyle Bunting, a designer known for rugs.
“People run up the stairs and gasp,” Santini said, adding that the material also has a fun sound effect. “It’s beautiful and practical.”
plate in wood
Sometimes a room calls for something a little understated. Then the best approach to take might be to cover the ceiling in wood, which adds visual interest without stealing the show.
Wright designed many types of coffered timber ceilings, painted and unfinished. For a cozy Connecticut library, he covered the ceiling with wide planks painted a deep purple. “It’s just planks of wood, jointed and painted,” he said. “It creates a striped pattern similar to a wood floor.”
For the foyer of a home in Short Hills, New Jersey, where the goal was to make the room light and bright, he added V-groove panels to the ceiling and painted it glossy white, creating a more stark pattern that still contained plenty of reflectivity.If the wood is not painted, the variety and properties of the raw materials make a big difference.
For a basic barn suite plus one home, Wright chose barn board with knots to create rustic-looking ceilings. But when he was designing a modern home in Atlantic Beach, New York, he chose pure cedar for a more refined look.
“We wanted a warm, soft feel,” he said, that keeps the home feeling elegant. “If every surface were white, I think it would be soulless.”
Add architectural details
You don’t have to cover the entire ceiling with wood to give it character. Another option is to use wood or stucco molding to add architectural detail. Crown molding that runs around the edge of the roof is the most common option, but there are other options as well.
When Jenkins designed a new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he used thin MDF molding to create shapes over the open living and dining area, defining seating areas and recessed light fixtures. “I designed this geometric ornament on the ceiling,” he said. “But they are all stable stock and very inexpensive.”
Gambrel routinely designs rooms with muscular crown molding, but has also used trim to give ceilings a coffered or subtle-beamed appearance, or to create grilles that conceal access panels and act as frames around light fixtures. In many cases, he paints these woodwork in a contrasting color and luster to show them off.
Alex Alonso, founder of Miami-based Mr. Alex Tate Design, recently completed a room in a home near Palm Beach, Florida, that features white trellis panels covering a pale pink ceiling. “We worked with an architectural detailing company to make them,” said Alonso, who cut the prefabricated pieces to fit.
The result is a space with a pergola feel. “It’s now my client’s favorite room,” he said.
Wash it off with a plaster
Even if you don’t want a lot of overhead decoration, there are subtle ways to add visual interest.
One of Gambrel’s favorite options is waxed grout: a layer of exposed stucco that’s only finished with wax after it dries. “It still has a smooth texture, but it has a lot of movement to the finish,” he said, which catches the eye. “It feels lively, unlike a flat, rolled coat of paint.”
When he wanted a deeper color with more contrast for the lobby of a London apartment, he chose Gambrel tadelakt, another type of plaster, which coats the walls and ceiling in it, for a finish that looks as soft as suede.
He noted that a ceiling shouldn’t be an afterthought — nor should it appear to be.
Whether you want an elaborately patterned ceiling or one that’s simple and subdued, he said, “you want to make it look intended and as thought through.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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