Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ceilings: The Sky's the Limit

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, painted by Michelangelo in the early 16th century, is probably the most recognizable ceiling in the world.  The celebrated ceiling depicts nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, the most famous of which must surely be the “Creation of Adam”.  Far more than mere decoration, the symbolic and metaphorical significance of the ceiling's elaborate design is the subject of numerous scholarly texts.

Even some of the more notable buildings in Washington, D.C., the seat of democracy, include ceilings rich with symbolism.  The U.S. Capitol building, in particular, is replete with densely decorated frescoes and vistas in the ceilings of its hallowed halls.  The ceiling in the eye of the Rotunda itself contains the classically inspired mural Apotheosis of Washington, depicting the ascension of George Washington into heaven, while the first floor corridors of the House and Senate wings sport ceiling designs full of intricate scenes from significant periods, historical figures, and events in American history.

Especially ornate are the so-called Brumidi Corridors in the Senate wing.  Signs of the zodiac (of all things) detail the ceiling at the north end of the corridor, while “lunettes” over the corridor's doorways symbolize the

business that was conducted in the various committee rooms at the time the murals were painted.  For instance, in the photo to the right, the Roman Goddess of War adorns the entrance to what once was the meeting place of the Military Affairs Committee.

When you look at these striking works of art, it makes you wonder why it is that the typical homeowner's ceiling remains the “final frontier” of decorating, a frontier that is usually ignored.  Most of the time, our ceilings give us no reason to look up, typically painted a plain white and completely devoid of drama or even interest.  But your home doesn't have to be a historical shrine, cathedral or palace to be worthy of stunning ceilings, and I'm here to hopefully provide some inspirational looks and ideas as well as some suggestions for how to achieve them.


One of the most popular architectural styles is the coffered ceiling, which is characterized by a grid-work of beams or moldings that are used to create sunken panels in the shape of a square or rectangle, or even octagon shapes of various sizes.  The depth of the beams and moldings is what determines the depth of the coffers themselves and their sizes will vary accordingly.  Once the grid has been installed, the choices for how you want to “fill the boxes” are endless.   

For example, the coffered ceiling in the photo to the left is from The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The “St. George Hall” (also known as the “Large Throne Room”) is a sumptuous example of the unmatched opulence of Russia's imperial past, and its ceiling has large, deep coffers and gilt bronze decorations in a baroque design that mirrors that of the hall's floor. 

But even if you don't live in a palace, you can feel like you do by creating your own simpler version of this ceiling.For instance, the bronze decorations in the Hermitage ceiling can be recreated by using gold leaf or gold leaf paint with reddish undertones to stencil the design within each box of the grid (and to create the Greek key pattern on the “coffers”); or, for a more “3D” effect, by using gilded architectural onlays that you finish yourself.  While it may prove challenging to find such onlays of sufficient size for this project (not to mention expensive), try using a combination of several smaller onlays arranged together to create a larger center medallion and then using single smaller appliques in the corners of your coffers and around the edges.

Obviously, deep coffers are not a good idea if you don't have a very high ceiling (since they will effectively lower your ceiling height), but you can use smaller crown moldings or picture moldings to create your sunken panels for the look of a coffered ceiling “grid” without taking up visual space in the room.  This is also a good option for vaulted or cathedral ceilings where the ceiling is not flat or otherwise conducive to deep coffers.  It's also a good recipe for a stunning design.

As you can see from the photo to the left, the ornate molded ceiling from London's Goldsmiths' Hall obviously doesn't suffer from a lack of height, but it's drama derives not from deep coffers but from the highly-detailed intricacies of the grid design.  At first glance, the thought of trying to replicate such a design might seem daunting.  However, if you consider the design as a series of repeated elements instead of one massive work of art, it becomes definitely do-able! 

As you can see from the close-up view (see above right), those repeated elements are almost like multi-framed “pictures” separated by a grid comprising gold-leaf stenciling and multiple rows and columns of small rosettes.  Once you consider the project from this point of view, the means to re-creating such a look on your own ceiling becomes clear:  Picture frame moldings, stencils and simple architectural moldings, along with a whole lot of patience, are all you need. 

Also important to note in this design are the rich tones of the background colors.  If you were to use less

saturated tones (such as pale greens and aquas) with a silver leaf instead of gold, the effect would be lighter and subtler, perhaps more akin to the mood created by the ceiling to the right.  

Having a similar grid pattern as that found in Goldsmiths' Hall, this ceiling from the presbytery at St. David's Cathedral in Wales evokes a very different mood, due primarily to the color scheme and the almost primitive decorative pattern.  In fact, the overall design is more reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch than what we might ordinarily associate with a European cathedral.  For this design, it's appropriate that the background color is a pale yellow because it shows the vivid colors of the designs to their best advantage.    Replicating the design of this ceiling in your own home is as easy as using a combination of simple moldings, a lot of colorful paint, and a repeated stencil pattern.


While coffered ceilings are a popular and traditional choice, there are many other options from which to choose, some of which will now be addressed.

Paintings and Murals

It's commonplace to decorate our walls with artwork and murals, but how often do we do the same for our ceilings?  The painting in the photo to the left, which is displayed in the ceiling above the staircase at
Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, shows the dramatic impact such a mural can have. Granted, a large scale mural is not suitable for every room (or every budget).  You need to have a large room with a high ceiling or a very open staircase (such as a two-story foyer) in order to afford the viewing eye the necessary perspective.  

But if you do have the suitable architecture for such a look, there are ways to achieve it at a fraction of the cost.  While most of us don't have the artistic skills to paint a mural and don't have the means to commission a masterpiece, there are wallpaper murals available at all price points.  After framing the mural with picture molding, you can give it more depth and make it look more authentic by giving it a crackle finish and even antiquing it with a burnt umber glaze for a more “old-world” look. 

If you decide to actually paint something yourself, a sponged-on “clouds and sky” look is fairly easy to achieve, as are more primitive subject matter and geometric patterns.  For example, a really
interesting and handsome choice would be to paint a compass rose.  Especially nice surrounding a chandelier or other pendant light fixture, there are patterns and pictures of compass roses available online and they are fairly easy geometric designs to re-create. 

Or, if you have the budget for it, you can also look into finding a local artist who will do the project for you (perhaps something trompe l'oeil). 

Moldings and Stencils and Tin:  Oh My

The visually stunning ceiling in the picture to the right is from the 14th century St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow, Poland.  The entire church is eye-popping, but the vibrant blue
groined spaces of the ceiling, with their fields of gold stars and stone ribs decorated with more vibrant colors of gold and red are especially arresting.  Imagine gazing up at a view like this every night before going to sleep and waking up to its beauty every morning.

If I were to attempt to re-create this design, I would probably make one large center rectangular space in the ceiling that was outlined with picture molding painted with a gold paint or leaf that has reddish undertones.  I would then create the “ribs” and groin spaces by doing an “X” pattern with more picture molding bisecting across the center of the rectangle and a rosette onlay placed in the center of the “X”, again painted or leafed with the same finish as the frame of the design.  Once you have this basic structure in place, the rest would be easy:  Vibrant blue paint and a gold leaf stencil or freestyle field of stars and you've got yourself a truly celestial ceiling.

Another rather simple but effective technique is to use the combination of appliques and color to
highlight your ceiling.  In the picture to the left, which is a view of the bottom of a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the Central Club in London, a delicate blue background color and contrasting white pattern of bellflower onlays and other architectural decorations creates a look reminiscent of Wedgwood china.  Another option would be to use a decorative ceiling medallion around your ceiling's light fixture and then to complement the medallion with moldings around the borders of the ceiling and similarly styled corner ornaments.  Manufacturers such as Decorative Millwork Products, Enkeboll and Decorators Supply all carry these types of details that are designed specifically for ceilings and they also offer suggestions for how to configure them into a suitable design.

Finally, tin ceilings are another style that can add great texture and interest to a space (see photo to the

right).  Tin ceilings are often associated with farmhouses or Victorian style homes, but they can make an elegant or rustic addition to almost any style of d├ęcor.  The drama of the ceiling in the photo is created by the play of light on the burnished gold tones of the metal and the intricately embossed pattern.  Tin ceiling designs are available in very simple and very ornate styles, and your options are further expanded by the ability to paint the tin in any color you wish.  One “shabby chic” look is to paint the tins and then lightly sand so that the original metallic finish of raised areas of the tins' embossed design is exposed.  Or, for a more formal look, you could do the opposite and paint the entire tin ceiling and then highlight the raised portions of the design with gold paint.  It's painstaking work, but well worth the effort. 


Whether it's the intricate detailing of a coffered ceiling; the delicate tracery created with architectural onlays; or the vibrant combination of rich paint color and contrasting stenciling, there are many creative ideas for your ceiling from which to choose.  Inspiration is all around you; all you need do is look. 



Coffered Ceilings:

  • If your ceilings are painted a stark white, one thing I would advise with a coffered ceiling is that you choose another background color for the inside area of your grid “boxes”.  Both the moldings that make up the grids and the decorations within will be highlighted to better effect than with a white background.  While almost any color would be preferable to white for just this reason, the bolder the better.  This is your opportunity to really make a statement, so pick a color that will really pop.
  • Other options to consider for coffered ceilings include using wallpaper with an interesting pattern to line the “bottom” of your coffers or, if you're feeling really bold, using mirror or mirrored tile.  Just be sure that before attempting to affix any type of mirror or other glass (or glass tile) to a ceiling you  research thoroughly the safest and best methods for doing so to ensure that the mirror or tile stays in place.  One place you can find directions for doing so is on the Service Magic website, but there are many information sources available on the subject.
  • Use plywood panels that have been upholstered with dacron batting and a beautiful fabric for a particularly plush look.  You can even add further detailing by attaching upholstery nail strips around the edges of the panel, or you can “tuft” the panels with fabric-covered buttons.
  • If you don't want to coffer the entire ceiling, consider creating just a central square or rectangle coffer in the middle of the ceiling (and surrounding the room's ceiling fixture, assuming it has one).  If you opt to do so, you will probably want to use a picture molding for the actual edges, as a deep crown molding would look odd.  Consider painting the inside of your single panel a rich, bold color to really make it stand out and then adding detail such as gold or silver leaf stencils, architectural onlays, or any of the ideas already mentioned here for coffered ceilings. 

More Ideas and General Suggestions:

  • If you're not ready for the more elaborate designs suggested here, you can always just paint your ceiling a bold color (or any color, for that matter!).  I'd recommend you use a premium wall paint (and not a ceiling paint), because the quality of the paint will be superior and the color truer.
  • For a small room (like a powder room), make an elegant statement by gold leafing the entire ceiling; using mirrored tile on the entire ceiling; or even wallpapering the ceiling in the same pattern as the walls.  Because the room is very small and not used for long periods of time, this is your opportunity to really experiment and try something different.
  • Use mosaic tile (glass tile is especially lovely) to create a pattern of your own design.  Mount the mosaic tiles on a piece of plywood backing and then attach the whole thing to the ceiling, with attached picture frame molding on top of the edges of the plywood to “anchor” the plywood in place. 
  •  If you are like most homeowners, your ceilings have some amount of texture to them.  Depending on the amount of texture involved, such ceilings can present some challenges depending on the decorative treatment you want to apply.  For instance, it may prove difficult to get architectural onlays and appliques to lay flat against the surface.  If this is the challenge you are facing, you have a couple of options.  One option is to smooth the textured surface (and websites such as and Sherwin-Williams will tell you how).  Or, if you are only working with a small section of ceiling, attach your tiles, mirror or other applied decorations to a piece of plywood that is then attached directly to the ceiling and then further anchored by a picture frame molding.  The plywood, for all intents and purposes, then becomes your  (smooth) ceiling and you can paint and decorate accordingly.

Photo credits:

Ceiling from Brumidi Corridors, U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Architect of the Capitol (or "AOC") website.

Ceiling from St. George Hall at The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. 
Photo used by permission and license of dorena-wm.

Ceiling from The Livery Hall of Goldsmiths' Hall, London, England.   Photo used by permission and license of ianvisits.

Close-up view of ceiling from The Livery Hall of Goldsmiths' Hall, London, England.   Photo used by permission and license of Martin Deutsch.

Ceiling from the Presbytery of St. David's Cathedral, Wales.  Photo used by permission and license of Diva Sian.

Ceiling above the oak staircase at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England.  Photo used by permission and license of Elfleda. 

Ceiling of St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland.  Photo used by permission and license of Lochinvar1.

Ceiling of the Central Club, London, England.  Photo used by permission and license of MindSpigot.

Tin ceiling.  Photo used by permission and license of SurprisePally. 
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton


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