What’s Up With Today’s Kitchen Ceilings

by WOHe

Sometimes forgotten, sometimes over-detailed, ceilings offer
kitchen and bath designers a great opportunity to enhance and
finish a space. Particularly with the higher ceilings prevalent in
new construction, ceiling treatments have become critical elements
in achieving comfortable scale and proportion in a room.

A look back through history and at concepts being incorporated
today may inspire kitchen/bath space planners to move beyond the
basic white.

Throughout history, the ceiling has represented the skies and
heavens, and it has been a canvas for display of personal and royal
crests and interpretation of the arts and sciences, the four
seasons, the five senses, the seven deadly sins, and even the nine
virtues.

Many time periods over the centuries have brought about many
style changes, ranging from exposed ceiling beams to stucco to gilt
ornamentation against strikingly rich colors. The post-World War II
and modern influences brought us back full circle to the common
white ceiling, often decorated with only a cornice molding and
pendant light fixture.

CONCEPTS FOR TODAY
The evolution of the kitchen to the social center of the home calls
for a casual area in which to relax with family and friends, and
while embellishments to the kitchen ceiling can add character, they
need not be ostentatious. The bathroom, on the other hand, has
become a private retreat, often reflecting the homeowner’s
personality. As our clients seem to desire the image and experience
of lying in the tub surrounded by soft music and candlelight, the
ceiling is an opportunity for expanding on that vision.

Many of the traditional European ceilings are based on formal,
symmetrical rooms of the home and often today’s kitchens and
bathrooms are anything but that. Particularly in the kitchen,
cabinetry can sometimes interfere visually with the symmetry of the
ceiling treatment, such as a dome or a large cove, and soffit
treatments can help restore balance.

The most common example might be a large Great Room with an
L-shaped kitchen in one corner. A dropped soffit to mirror the
shape of the island might help define the space and bring the room
together through repetition, rather than act as a focal point in
the center of the room. Another option to maintain balance is to
build out the perimeter soffit equally around the room, past the
wall or tall cabinet depth so the change of plane from soffit
fascia to ceiling is consistent.

In either room, we must begin by considering the scale of the
room. A small powder room with a 10-foot ceiling height can be
changed from creating the sense of an elevator shaft to a more
human scale with a ceiling lowered, actually and visually, by the
creation of a domed or coffered ceiling treatment. It’s always
worth remembering that the configuration of the ceiling and the
materials and finishes that are used will have tremendous visual
impact on the room.

One straightforward design is to build the ceiling into the roof
structure, creating a vaulted ceiling with the height limited only
by the pitch of the roof. In new construction, with plywood
sheathing, insulation and sheetrock, a traditional look is often
created with the addition of decorative beams and planks. For an
authentic look, many of our New England clients are using reclaimed
barn timbers. In addition, manufacturers offer laminated tongue and
groove planks, v-groove planks and urethane rough timber
replicas.

Incorporating the details of the internal roof structure such as
open trusses and arches adds mass to a high vault. In fact, many
arched ceilings evolved from types of timber roof construction such
as arch brace, crown post and green post roofs, resulting in
dramatic details since the collar ties, arches and knee brace
timbers are often visible. A darker or more intensely colored
finish will help minimize the height of a vaulted ceiling, if
desired.

Another option is the tray ceiling, which gets its name from its
resemblance to an inverted tray. It follows the roofline at the
wall intersection, then flattens horizontally where it meets the
collar tie. The roof plane can incorporate traditional planks and
the horizontal plane can receive decorative elements. A pair of
contrasting parallel planks along each length of the room can
visually add length to a room for better proportion.

By extending into the roof cavity, (within the building
envelope) constructing forms such as domes and barrel vaults can
create some of the most artistic ceilings. Domes have a neo-classic
influence, but can be used today with a variety of architectural
styles. And, incorporating a dome into the ceiling has never been
easier. Prefabricated plaster and urethane core and cast polymer
domes are available in sizes up to seven feet in diameter.

Suspended structural systems are another option that simplifies
the design and construction of domes or barrel vaults by providing
a steel skeleton to which curved drywall ceilings are applied. We
recently came across a company that offers interior stained glass
dome structures for residential and commercial applications.

The barrel ceiling was often part of the integrated design of
Art Nouveau, where ceilings were treated in the same fashion as the
walls, painted the same color, and often with the ceiling rib
molding extending to the walls. The playroom in Frank Lloyd
Wright’s Oak Park home is a timeless example. When the parallel
ribbing runs the width of the ceiling and down the walls, it
visually adds length to the room and brings the ceiling down.
Cabinetry can be integrated into the molding by coordinating the
width of cabinet doors with the spacing of the ribs.

Perhaps the most common ceiling is built into the floor above,
whether an upper lever or attic space. As with ceilings
incorporated into the roof structure, interest can be added by
revealing or enhancing the support for the floor above. In addition
to beams, planks and coffered ceilings, segmented ceilings of 17th
and 18th century vintage are a more formal option for ceiling
decoration, but can be obtained with the use of a variety of
materials and mediums from the illusion of trompe l’oeil painting
to custom molding and prefabricated ornamentation. Replicas of
traditional plaster ornamentation, such as medallions, panels and
corner moldings are crafted in a variety of styles available from
many plaster and urethane manufacturers to suit today’s sleek and
clean lines. The circular and rectangular frames created by the
moldings and ornaments provide an opportunity for personalization
with figurative painting or a cloudscape or celestial scene.

HEIGHT ISSUES
When a ceiling is the standard height of eight feet, or if it is
less, the details and finish of a ceiling will be chosen to
maintain that height.
An elongated rectangular room will tend to emphasize a lower
ceiling, so a coffered ceiling is often avoided, for example,
because the beams and molding can drop the height by a foot.
However, decoration with a slight relief, such as tin panels or
fibrous tiles, provides subtle pattern and interest without
becoming too heavy. Tin sheets today are available paint-ready and
in brass, copper and chrome finishes. Other products used today
include fibrous and vinyl tiles with repetitive relief patterns.
Stenciled decoration in linear forms with medieval and oriental
influences was common in the Arts and Crafts style, and can be
easily replicated on a ceiling of any size or shape when a ceiling
is standard height; often no decoration or color is added, with the
thinking being that an unadorned white ceiling will make the room
feel more open. We have found the opposite can be true by recessing
an elliptical or rectangular center section of the ceiling, and
using a darker color or shade in the center recess and a lighter
color around the perimeter to create an illusion of spatial
depth.

As with most details of design, the impact of ceiling treatments
is directly related to how they are lit. We recently came across an
example of a skylight detail used to make a small bath feel more
open, and upon further examination we realized the skylight was
actually an enlarged photo of a jet streaking across the sky
surrounded by fluorescent tubes hidden by recessing rows of lattice
(Note: While real skylights bring in the coveted day lighting, we
must be careful with respect to the darker times.) Another example
we came across consisted of a recessed dome over a whirlpool tub
painted in a nightscape, with stars created from fiber optic
pinpoints.
Ceiling heights over the standard offer a natural opportunity for
cove lighting, which can enhance the ceiling detail and add
tremendous warmth to the entire room. A lighting architect and good
friend offered the guideline of 18″ as the ideal distance from the
light source to the ceiling to allow proper reflection into the
room. She also taught me about the use of opaque glass or
plexi-glass as a ceiling treatment, particularly if natural light
is not available or if the room is small. Glass ceilings or stained
glass domes are best treated with back lighting.

With these ideas as inspiration, perhaps you’ll add a category
to your office idea file labeled “ceilings.” Experiment with
ceiling shapes, placement of decorative patterns, and vertical and
horizontal lines with perspective grids or cad programs with
perspective capabilities by placing the vanishing point below eye
level for a better view of the ceiling.

Certainly, you may now take a second look as you complete the
design phase of future kitchens and baths, and consider what
ceiling treatments might be just the right choice to cap it
off.

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