When you’re decorating a room, it’s easy to obsess over what’s covering the floor and the walls. But what about the ceiling?
It rarely gets much attention — beyond a coat of flat, white paint. And that’s a missed opportunity.
“To leave the ceiling behind — when you’ve resolved the other surfaces in a room — seems not only unfortunate, but also throws off the balance,” said the New York designer Steven Gambrel. “If I’ve got texture on the walls or material on the floor that has character, I’m trying to give that top surface the same level of patina — or massive contrast.”
The way Corey Damen Jenkins, an interior designer in New York, 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’s unobstructed by artwork and furniture,” said Mr. Jenkins, who is no stranger to making big statements overhead. “I sometimes even start there and work my way down.”
Embellishing the ceiling is especially important in rooms that guests will see, including “powder rooms, bars, libraries, dining rooms, places where you might be having a cocktail or eating dinner,” said Fern Santini, a designer based in Austin, Texas. “You can do fun things to create fun rooms that have instant mood.”
We asked a few designers to walk us through the process, step by step.
Make It Reflective
When Mr. Gambrel wants a statement ceiling, he sometimes gives it a mirror-like finish of high-gloss paint. “That, of course, brings in a ton of light, meaning that light begins to bounce across the ceiling,” he said. “It adds a little polish.”
To achieve his desired finish, he uses multiple coats of ultra-high-gloss Hollandlac enamel from Fine Paints of Europe. But because the shiny surface will reveal any imperfections, the ceiling must be skim coated and sanded perfectly smooth first. Mr. Gambrel has used neutral colors to simply bounce more light around a room, but has also created attention-grabbing ceilings in colors like vibrant peachy pink and coral.
Mr. Jenkins achieved a similar look in a dining room with Venetian plaster burnished to a high gloss. “It almost looks like a pool of water on the ceiling, upside down,” he said.
In another project, he considered mounting antiqued mirror on the ceiling, but when the budget wouldn’t allow it, he used a shiny Cole & Son wallcovering called Antique Mirror to achieve a similar effect. “I really wanted it for this room,” he said. “The ceiling elevates the whole space.”
Add a Metallic Touch
Adding a metallic finish to a ceiling will also make it shine. One option is to apply gold leaf, or some other metal leaf, to the drywall, or to use a wallcovering with the same look.
Ms. Santini once used gold-leaf wallpaper from Phillip Jeffries in a primary bedroom, running it across the ceiling and down the top of the walls to create an effect like an upside-down tray.
“Gold leaf is just a beautiful way to do a ceiling,” she said. “It reflects light, but it’s so soft. It’s not in your face or too glam.”
Douglas C. Wright, an architect in New York, added pressed tin to the ceiling of a kitchen in Connecticut 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,” Mr. Wright said. “It took what was kind of a dim, dark space and made it bright, warm and cozy.”
Blast It With Pattern
Despite its name, wallpaper isn’t just for walls. While it is more commonly applied to vertical surfaces, it’s also delightful on a ceiling.
Mr. Jenkins has designed rooms with wallpapered ceilings featuring elaborate florals, clouds and multicolored marbleized patterns. Ms. Santini once designed a kitchen with a ceiling covered by a swarm of illustrated honeybees, thanks to wallpaper from Timorous Beasties.
“We could have just painted it white, and it would have been so boring,” she said. “This is another layer that makes the room so interesting.”
In another house, she did something even more elaborate: She covered the ceiling of a library and bar with pieces of brightly colored, laser-cut cowhide, assembled into a large-scale floral pattern by Kyle Bunting, a designer known for rugs.
“People walk up the stairs and gasp,” Ms. Santini said, adding that the material also has a pleasing acoustic effect. “It’s beautiful and functional.”
Panel It in Wood
Sometimes a room calls for something a bit more understated. Then the best approach to take may be paneling a ceiling in wood, which adds visual interest without stealing the show.
Mr. Wright has designed many types of paneled wood ceilings, both painted and unfinished. For a cozy library in Connecticut, he covered the ceiling with wide boards painted a deep purple. “They’re just wood boards, butt-jointed and painted,” he said. “It creates a striped pattern similar to the wood floor.”
For the lounge of a house in Short Hills, N.J., where the goal was to make the room light and bright, he added V-groove paneling to the ceiling and painted it glossy white, creating a more pronounced pattern that still has plenty of reflectivity.
If the wood won’t be painted, the variety and character of the raw material makes a big difference.
For a primary suite in the barnlike addition to one house, Mr. Wright chose barn board with knots, to create rustic-looking ceilings. But when he was designing a modern house in Atlantic Beach, N.Y., he chose clear cedar for a more refined look.
“We wanted a warm, soft feeling,” he said, that maintained the home’s sense of elegance. “If every surface had just been white, I think it would have been soulless.”
Add Architectural Details
You don’t have to cover the entire ceiling with wood to give it personality. Another option is to use molding in wood or plaster to add architectural detail. Crown molding that runs around the edge of the ceiling is the most common choice, but there are other options, as well.
When Mr. Jenkins designed a new house in Ann Arbor, Mich., he used thin MDF molding to create shapes above the open living-and-dining area, defining the seating areas and setting off the light fixtures. “I designed this geometric trim on the ceiling,” he said. “But it’s all flat stock and very inexpensive.”
Mr. Gambrel routinely designs rooms with muscular crown molding, but he has also used trim to give ceilings a subtle coffered or beamed look, or to create grids that hide access panels and serve as frames around light fixtures. In many cases, he paints this woodwork a contrasting color and sheen to show it off.
Alex Alonso, the founder of Mr. Alex Tate Design in Miami, recently completed a room in a house near Palm Beach, Fla., that has white trellis panels covering a light pink ceiling. “We worked with an architectural detail company that makes them,” said Mr. Alonso, who had the prefabricated pieces cut to fit.
The result is a space with the feeling of a pergola. “It’s now my client’s favorite room,” he said.
Wash It With Plaster
Even if you don’t want much decoration overhead, there are subtle ways to add visual interest.
One of Mr. Gambrel’s favorite options is waxed plaster: a coat of bare plaster finished only with wax after it dries. “It’s still smooth to the touch, but it has a lot of movement to the finish,” which is picked up by the eye, he said. “It feels alive, unlike a rolled coat of flat paint.”
When he wanted a deeper color with more variation for the foyer of a London apartment, Mr. Gambrel chose tadelakt, another type of plaster, coating both the walls and the ceiling in it, for a finish that looks as soft as suede.
The ceiling, he noted, shouldn’t be an afterthought — and it shouldn’t look like one, either.
Whether you want an elaborately embellished ceiling or one with a simple, calm finish, he said, “you want to make it look intentional, and like it was considered.”
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