In most design plans the ceiling is an afterthought. Usually it is painted white, off-white or possibly a tint of the wall color. But there definitely are other options, and they give the designer or decorator an opportunity to add a signature touch to what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill project.
The normal ceiling height in most houses today is eight feet. In some older homes (100-plus years), you may come across seven- or 7 1/2-foot ceilings as well as ceilings well over eight feet. Given the typical eight-foot ceiling height, most rooms look fine with nothing special up there. However, there are some tricks you can use to jazz up the space or change one's perception of it.
If you are presented with a very large room with an eight-foot ceiling, or a small room with a ceiling less than eight feet, the space can feel very enclosed and oppressive. One option is to paint the ceiling a light, cool color. Cool colors recede from one's view so the perception would be that the ceiling is higher than it really is. Light shades of blues, greens and purples would do this well.
Another idea would be to put a vertically striped paper on the wall to lead the eye up to the ceiling, then use a border paper to outline the ceiling edge. Next, paint the ceiling the background color of the border or wallpaper to give it the feeling of extending the space by minimizing contrast.
When working with a border paper, consider placing the border on the ceiling where it meets the wall instead of on the wall itself. Doing this will fool the eye into believing the ceiling is part of the wall, thus altering the perception of the room and making it seem taller.
Decorative finishes also can be helpful. Paint the ceiling with a mural of sky (blue, a receding color) and clouds (in shades of white). This creates an optical illusion that expands the space above and makes use of the innate human psychology that believes the sky is vast and endless. Of course it is critical that such a ceiling integrates well with the room design, but other finishes such as ragging or sponging (See D&WC, May 1997.) also could be used in appropriate colors to generate a similar response to the space.
Crown moldings are a wonderful way to bring one's attention up to the ceiling. Depending upon the style of the room, molding can be as simple or as complicated as necessary. Specify a molding that will lie more on the ceiling than the wall so the wall will seem higher. Don't paint this trim too dark a color as that will define the ceiling line too sharply. Consider painting it the same color as the wall or one or two shades darker than the wall. This also will make the wall seem taller.
Texture can lower the perceived ceiling height. If the ceiling has an acoustical coating or some other surface that advances toward the eye, consider having it removed or "floated" to level it out. Then use some of the other suggestions as appropriate to enhance the ceiling to its best advantage.
Don't overlook the effectiveness of lighting. If there is a ceiling fixture, make sure it reflects light up onto the ceiling. Track lighting and architectural lighting also can be used to light the ceiling to give it the feeling of a larger space. If a taller space is desired, light the ceiling just a little brighter than the rest of the room. Be careful not to make it too bright or the room will lose its interest to the brighter ceiling above.
High, Flat Ceilings
Any ceiling over eight feet is high and can be a blessing or a curse. If in a large room a high ceiling gives the room better proportion. However, in a small room it gives the feeling of being inside a deep box.
As lighter, cooler colors recede, deeper, brighter or warmer colors advance. By painting a high ceiling in a warm color such as yellow or peach, or by using a deeper hue of a cool color such as hunter green, the ceiling will look lower. Select the color based on the design scheme, the size of the room and the type of ceiling. Don't over compensate for a high ceiling in a small room with too dark or too bright a color as it will become oppressive.
A change in the perceived ceiling height can be done easily with a picture molding or border paper placed below ceiling height. A rule of thumb is to have the lower edge of the border or molding be at the eight-foot height. Any wall above these details should be painted the color of the ceiling, thus bringing down its perceived height. Use the suggestions for color as listed above.
In this instance lighting also can be helpful. Light the lower areas of the room so they are brighter than the ceiling. The ceiling still should have some light (you don't want that part of the room to feel like a black hole), but if it is lighted less brightly than the rest of the room the attention will remain closer to eye or floor level.
There are two schools of thought on dramatic, architectural cathedral ceilings. The first school wants to highlight them. If this is the case, lighting can be used to bring the attention up into this area. Exercise caution, however. If the ceiling is too brightly lighted, the clients will get a sore neck looking up rather than paying attention to what else is going on in the room. Light the ceiling no brighter than the rest of the space.
Also contrasting the color of the ceiling and its architectural features, such as beams or skylights, with the rest of the space will draw one's attention up to take in the drama. Once again, remember to balance this attention-getting ploy with other elements in the room or it may backfire.
The second school of thought on cathedral ceilings is that they are a problem to be ignored or played down. If this is your approach, light the ceiling space less brightly than the rest of the room and use picture moldings, wallpaper borders and other decorating elements to keep one's interest in the lower areas of the space.
Whatever your project, there are options for decorating the ceiling that can make it an important and attractive part of the design plan. A little bit of thought and creativity can add a whole new dimension to your designs and a signature to your work that might never me matched.
Susan Dudics-Dean is owner of Celestial Designs and an interior designer who has worked in the San Francisco Bay area of California for more than 11 years. She also is a newspaper columnist and seminar speaker.