Add Interest to Your Ceiling and Walls

Learn about details that pull a living room style together: beams, molding, wainscoting and trim.

CI-Rachel-Cannon-Lewis-dark-gray-living-room_s4x3 Photo courtesy of Rachel Cannon

A living room can be a somewhat formal room, and as such, it may have more architectural definition than other spaces within a house. But before casting a wide net into the sea of possibilities, it's important to consider the house as a whole — what is appropriate, true, consistent, and befitting a house in its particular style and location.

The common threads throughout a living room lead to a satisfyingly tailored look, one in which none of the details appears out of place. Ceilings and walls present opportunities for unifying a distinctive aesthetic. What you don't want to do is identify a perfectly good treatment for another style of architecture and apply it indiscriminately — for example, adding ornate crown molding or tin tiles to the walls or ceiling of a midcentury-modern house. Architectural details must be appropriate.

"We work in multiple residential styles and find that the treatment of ceilings and walls is important in completing the design vernacular," says architect Robert Tuthill. "For example, when we do a West Indies home, the ceilings and walls may be detailed with painted beadboard and natural woods. Bringing some of the outside elements in tends to enhance the casual island flavor."

Other styles of homes have their own set of needs. In a contemporary home, it's all about sculpture, he says. "Ceilings and walls tend to be clean and organized. Details want to appear integrated, not applied. Shape and shadow are used to create interest; materials are used with balance and purpose." Tuthill goes on to caution: "It is important, no matter what style you work in, that the inside reflects the outside."


For Seattle architect Carol Sundstrom, precedent is key. She begins by looking for original details, "and then I try to match them," she says. "If there is little original charm — or in some cases, none — we use photos of historic details from other houses of the era."

Just as important as precedent, the vernacular tradition — the styles befitting a particular location — can drive the best use of materials and their trappings. Jane Frederick, of Frederick + Frederick Architects, underscores the importance of appreciating the materials of the surrounding locale. "Our work is based on Southern vernacular traditions, and we try to use locally sourced materials," she says. "Wood ceilings from river-recovered cypress (also called sinker cypress) are beautiful. It is fine-grained and has a rich, warm color."

In the end, living room ceilings and walls benefit from a careful approach, one that honors the house and its surroundings. So don't throw caution to the wind. Your architect will thank you.

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