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Ceiling styles give much needed lift

With murals, architectural features, and paint colors that wow, things are looking up for the long-ignored ceiling.

Writer Jaci Conry’s kitchen, which was coffered to mask a flaw. It’s now her favorite feature in the space.Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

FALMOUTH — As a design writer, I tend to be the family expert when it to comes to home-decor trends. Four years ago, however, when we were renovating our kitchen, my husband, a fishing tackle manufacturer, trumped me.

In the process of bumping the room out six feet, we realized that an essential horizontal support beam would be dissecting the room in half. The room’s ceilings were low, and the beam stuck out awkwardly. My husband suggested installing beams to create a coffered effect. I was skeptical, but I agreed (I was getting my apron-front farmers sink, after all.) A few days later, he suggested adding bead-board panels between the coffers. His next idea was painting them sky blue.


A sky mural behind a painted trompe l’oeil conservatory ceiling.Marylou Crowley; mural by arteriors

Though I was briefly miffed that I hadn’t come up with the concept, I love the ceiling. It’s become my favorite feature in the kitchen. As soon as you walk into the room, your eye is drawn upward — our guests are constantly marveling at the ceiling. No one realizes that it was developed to mask a design flaw.

I now notice ceilings wherever I go. It used to be that featureless white ones were the norm. The thought being that they are too far from view to influence the look of a room. That’s no longer the case. Ceilings represent a lot of unused space in the house and can have as strong of an impact on a home’s interior as its walls and floors. In recent years, increasing emphasis has been put into the aesthetics of ceilings.

“I think about the ceiling as the fifth wall in a room,” said Dina Holland, a Boston interior designer who blogs at . “They should be considered as a whole other way to create a design element.”

Holland recommends painting them a different color than the walls, particularly if your home has low ceilings. Lighter shades tend to enlarge a space visually. Darker hues have more of an enveloping appeal, so they’re good options if you have a big room you want to make feel cozier.


“People tend to think if a ceiling is low you shouldn’t do anything to draw attention to it, but that’s not the case,” Holland explained. “If you put anything on a ceiling, it draws the eye up so you’re not noticing the height.”

Wallpapering the ceiling is another way to add pop, providing an opportunity to be a little more adventurous.

“You may not feel comfortable wallpapering an entire room. If you choose to do just the ceiling, it’s less expensive, and the impact creates much more of a wow factor than if it was on the walls,” Holland said. When you put wallpaper on the ceiling, it draws your eye, and you get the full impact of the pattern without art or mirrors or anything else on top.

Hiring a decorative painter to create a custom mural on the ceiling is another option. “Everyone expects ceilings to be basic white,” said Stephanie Mesner, owner of Arteriors, a decorative-painting business based in Natick. “They offer a great opportunity to create a nice surprise element.”

Her clients’ requests run the gamut: from ornate scrollwork meant to emulate plaster reliefs to maps to tortoise-shell finishes. “Metallic finishes are a really big thing now,” she said. People like ceilings with silver leaf and painted metallic tones like bronze and copper.”


Matthew Cole of Cape Associates Inc., an Eastham builder, frequently has projects that call for various types of wood, V-groove, and bead board to be used to dress up flat plaster or run-of-the-mill drywall ceilings. “Nonstructural reclaimed-wood beams are popular,” Cole said. While setting a sustainable, rustic vibe, exposed beams can create patterns of light and shadow that visually break up large spaces.

A colorfully painted ceiling draws the eye up.Jessica Delaney; design by dina holland

It’s common to cover an entire ceiling with wood, Cole said, but you can create a focal point by using a distinctive material in just one area. In a recent kitchen renovation, his team installed warm natural wood in a noncontinuous fashion over the island. Pendant lights hang from the wood. “The wood almost mirrors the island,” Cole said. “It really changes the dynamic of the space.”

Stephanie Sabbe of Sabbe Interior Design encourages her clients to think beyond decorative when it comes to ceilings. “If you can splurge a little bit on adding an architectural detail, you’ll be glad you did,” Sabbe said. Architectural details trick the eye by providing contrast, she said. “Furniture is expensive, and in a lot of cases you can create a ceiling element that costs less and will last a lot longer.”

When Sabbe realized that the ceilings of her own kitchen were too low to accommodate pendant lights, she created a coffered design above the island out of reclaimed planks and affixed flush-mount light fixtures. In the bathroom of a city loft, she created a rounded, arched doorway that meets the ceiling to make the narrow space feel bigger.


It’s not only about adding character; different ceiling treatments may be used to define space and set scale through height, configuration, and detail, said John DaSilva, design principal and architect at Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders, a Cape-based firm.

Particularly now that we so frequently see homes with flexible, open floor plans, boundaries between kitchen, living, and dining areas can be hard to define. Ceiling details help create distinction. “Shaped ceilings can imply separation while maintaining visual connection,” said DaSilva, who frequently uses interior soffits — a portion of a ceiling that is lower than the central part — to define spaces.

A trompe l’oeil mural of a tented canopy on a flat ceiling.Warren Patterson; mural by arteriors/Warren Patterson

“Patterns made by grids or paneling can also give order to the space below,” DaSilva said, adding that coffered ceilings can take many forms. “Coffers represent the beams that hold up the roof or a floor above. Sometimes it’s an actual beam that hangs into a space. Other times, the effect is purely decorative. Coffered ceilings can have more or less depth. They can be a grid of beams or a flat pattern.”

Among the most appealing options are cathedral ceilings and their counterpart, vaulted, which tend to create a dramatic impact by filling rooms with light and airy appeal, giving the illusion of a much larger room, DaSilva said. To create a cathedral or vaulted ceiling, he said, it is challenging to “have a room above it, so that limits this idea for a lot of homes.”


If you’re not in a position to enhance your ceilings, Sabbe said, certain light fixtures can offer an element of intrigue. “Look for lighting that will cast shadows on your ceiling,” she said. “Moravian star pendants, for example, have a really lovely effect.”

Create a focal point by using a distinctive material in just one area.Photo by Greg Premru; renovation by Cape Associates Inc./Greg Premru

Jaci Conry is a regular contributor to the Globe. Send comments to