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High Design

In many interiors, the ceiling is an afterthought, or last priority among a laundry list of needed decor improvements. But letting this fifth wall simply blend with the rest of your environs leaves so much inspiration on the table.

“Ceilings are an opportunity to bring in other design elements,” says Amy Vroom, owner of The Residency Bureau design studio in Seattle.

Ceilings can create the illusion of space, producing a sense of scale, drama, or even intimacy, says Rupert Martineau, senior associate and project head of residential interiors at SHH in London. “The ceiling height in relation to the width and depth of the room is one of the most critical elements regarding the proportion of the room,” he says. “How the ceiling is detailed can greatly enhance this sense of proportion and aid the distribution of light throughout the space.”


The ceiling at the pool in the luxe Belgravia House project, designed by SHH in London, is a showstopper
Photo Credit: Adam Woodward



There are many different ways of treating a ceiling—from a simple, modern flat plane to classical vaulted arches, Martineau says. “In each case there needs to be consistency with the general narrative of the building, its history, and function, and reference materiality and finish,” he says.

All the elements have to work together intentionally to make a room feel cohesive, according to Miriam Silver Verga and Hillary Kaplan, principal designers of Mimi & Hill Design in Westfield, N.J. For example, a super bright white painted ceiling sharply contrasted with colored or wallpapered walls can quickly shrink a room and divide a space. High, vaulted ceilings can create complicated geometry if they are not designed well, Verga and Kaplan say.

Finding a common thread between the ceiling and the rest of the space creates cohesion. For example, if you have molding on your walls, you could continue that same molding on your ceiling, Vroom says. “If you’re designing a den, you could drop the ceiling around the perimeter of the room and add lighting to create an ambience that connects with the mood of that space.”


Some architectural ceiling elements can be added as adornments, much like jewelry. Verga and Kaplan love coffered ceilings as they add depth, interest, and geometry. “Interestingly, the Romans invented them to reduce the weight of stone ceilings in ancient buildings and domes like the Pantheon but they were later adopted by the French and English in manor homes as ornate decoration,” they say. “We love the cleaner, more modern versions, which can create drama and allow for an exciting mix of materials and textures.” What’s more, a coffered ceiling becomes a focal point, drawing the eye upward.

Wood beams are another way to add detail, geometry, various planes, and textures to ceilings, Verga and Kaplan say. “They are perfect for A-shaped or vaulted ceilings and can be a dramatic element when done well.” But the duo caution against using beams that are too skinny, which can end up looking ill-proportioned. And make sure the ceiling is high enough to accommodate them. “The last thing you want to do is take away more of the usable height with unnecessary details,” they say.

In a farmhouse kitchen Vroom is designing with ceilings that are more than 10 feet high, she’s adding distressed beams “to break up the height, allowing us to layer in another element of patina to tie into the rest of the design.” In a more modern space with vaulted ceilings, Vroom suggests combating a cavernous feel with walnut wood panels to give the space warmth.


Wallpaper brings interest to the ceiling in this room designed by Amy Vroom of The Residency Bureau
Photo Credit: Brent Henry Martin



Paint color and finish can have a profound effect on the look and feel of a space. “Paint colors are critical and should be coordinated with the walls and lighting,” Martineau says. For example, if the ceiling is dark, the room will feel lower. Yet, in some cases, providing a polished finish can increase the sense that the ceiling extends beyond its actual limit, Martineau says.

Having the ceiling finished in a lighter color to the walls, or lighting the ceiling from below can help create the illusion of height, as can using high gloss or a lacquered finish. “The reflected light brightens and enlarges the space,” Verga and Kaplan say. The two also love hand-painted ceilings, which add interest. For one project, they hired a decorative painter to recreate a marbled wallpaper as a ceiling mural. “It’s magnificent, timeless, and adds details, pattern, subtle color, and an overall visual flow to the room,” they say.

The finish of the paint is crucial. “Flat paint isn’t always the best go-to. Ceilings can always benefit from some high gloss for reflectivity,” they say.

Keep in mind, paint colors on the ceiling rarely look the same as the walls if you’re trying to match the two, Vroom says. They usually look darker on the ceiling due to the horizontal plane. “If you’re trying to have the ceiling match the walls, select a paint chip lighter than your wall color to get a more consistent color,” she says.


Sometimes, thinking beyond the scope of what’s already possible can produce a more inspired design. For a recent condo project, Vroom converted a space with stark white walls into a cozy retreat by adding a botanical wallpaper on the ceiling. “It created an English country home in a bustling urban center,” Vroom says.

The use of tiles can be fun, especially if they are lightweight formed metal panels or colorful ceramics in domed or arched ceilings, Verga and Kaplan say. They also utilize wallpaper to produce dramatic effect. “We also love to add wood panels to ceilings as a textural highlight, especially for smaller ceilings, to highlight a light fixture or a seating area,” Verga and Kaplan say.

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