What's Up With Today's Kitchen Ceilings

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.

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.

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.