The Fifth Wall

No need to stop at four. Check out how to bring a unique look to your “fifth” wallThe Fifth WallWhen It Comes to Ceilings, Things are Looking Up

By Rosanne Dunkelberger 

We pore over wallpaper books by the dozen, agonize over a choice between Classic Sand and Tatami Tan paint colors, immerse ourselves in the relative merits of berber versus wool carpets, special-order a couch covered with one of 200 different fabric choices and hire a decorator to determine the perfect positioning of furniture.

And then, when it’s time to decorate the “fifth wall,” we stick in builder-grade can lights and roll on the white paint.

When it comes to ceilings, “with clients it’s always an afterthought, it’s not a first thought,” says Everett Thompson, design consultant for Furniture Showcase.

But with a little forethought, local decorating professionals say ceilings both plain and fancy can make our rooms more inviting.

Why White?
The traditional thinking is that white paint on the ceiling increases light reflection, making the room seem brighter. Ceiling white paint is formulated to be thicker and splatter less, but any flat paint can be tinted and will work well on a ceiling, say the experts. Painter Burt Cox prefers flat wall paint because ceiling white paint tends to “look gray and it’s hard to apply.”

Interior designer Ginny Sharpe of Park Avenue Design usually doesn’t indulge in elaborate ceiling decoration but suggests “taking the (wall) paint color and putting some of that in white so the crown molding stands out more – but it’s still lighter than the wall.”

A homeowner’s investment in lavish moldings and trims can be wasted when they’re positioned against a white ceiling, says local decorative painter Krista Phillips.

“Traditionally people paint their molding creamy white or white, and if you paint your ceiling white you lose your molding,” she says. “I’m always telling people to paint their ceilings a color relative to the walls – whether its complementary or in the same family of the wall color.”

While she isn’t averse to ornamentation on the ceiling, Mary Solomon of Mary Solomon Interiors often favors a simple solution.

“In bedrooms, sometimes I will tint (the ceiling paint) just a hair of the wall color. It covers imperfections,” she says.

But she’s no fan of the cottage cheesy ’80s-era acoustic ceiling treatment commonly called “popcorn.”

“If it’s a popcorn ceiling, I try to get rid of it – that’s probably the thing I just cannot stand,” Solomon says.

She isn’t alone in her popcorn aversion. A Web site called describes itself as “uniting popcorn haters everywhere.” Be forewarned: Removal is a messy, dusty, dirty job that also can be hazardous, since early incarnations of popcorn included asbestos. And because popcorn was able to cover a multitude of construction sins, it may take some work to create a uniform surface once the treatment has been scraped off.

When she wants a ceiling to make a statement – just not too emphatically – for the past 10 years designer Susette Crosby has opted for an ultra-pale aqua color from Sherwin Williams called “Opera Glass.”

“It’s always one I recommend, but some people won’t let me do it,” she says. The effect gives the room just a hint of the sky overhead, rather than stark white. “It’s just a little detail,” Crosby says. “Not everybody’s going to notice.”

Painting pros suggest you start with the ceiling when painting a room. If you are going to use ceiling white, consider one of the “magic” formulas, such as Visible Solution from Sherwin Williams. The paint goes on violet so you can be sure it is applied evenly and you haven’t missed any spots, but it dries to white within a couple hours.

Ceilings: What’s Your Pleasure?
When it comes to decorating overhead, the sky’s the limit on possibilities – and the budget.

At the simple, inexpensive end, there’s paint. Painting a ceiling in a color or tone darker than the walls will “lower” a ceiling that seems too high. Painting the top part of the wall the same darker color will make the ceiling appear even lower.

To make a ceiling look higher, paint it a lighter color and keep the moldings and other details in the same color.

It might be worth investing in the advice of an interior designer, even if paint is the option of choice, to take advantage of his or her familiarity with color, light and techniques. Crosby likes to paint a four-inch ribbon of color around the edge of the ceiling in a room, to give the appearance of a tray. Others suggest drawing a circle around a light fixture and painting it to create a medallion.

Furniture Showcase’s Thompson convinced a client to paint the ceiling at the top of a staircase chocolate brown with black molding against a “tanny gold color” wall. The dramatic black accented the two colors to “make them both richer and come together to make the two colors noticeable,” he says. “There was more depth because there was color there instead of blank, white space.”

After consulting with clients, “I like to try to create the fun or dramatic side of what they want to do for themselves,” Thompson says. “Nine out of 10 times the customer has always loved it, and nine out of 10 times they’ve said, ‘I never would have done that.’” And what about that 10th client? “It’s just paint,” he says. “If we don’t like it, we repaint it.”

Beyond paint, decorators have suggested solutions ranging from decorative medallions or mirrors around a lighting fixture to tucking light ropes into tray ceilings or trimwork, or even installing a prefab dome as a focal piece.

Inspired by a large bathroom window that looked out onto a natural area in one home, Thompson decided to use wallpaper with a bird motif on the ceiling.

“Most people don’t even notice it” when they come into the room, he says. “But when you’re sitting down and you’re in the Jacuzzi … .”

More-involved ceiling treatments include trays, beams and coffers, choices often driven by the style and ornamentation found in the rest of the room.

Newer, upscale homes often feature stepped-up tray ceilings. Phillips advocates keeping embellishments simple, perhaps tucking in some lighting or doing a different color or faux treatment only at the very top.

“There’s so much architectural interest in it, usually we don’t want to get too busy,” she says. “You don’t want to have too many colors – the lighting on it is going to have the effect of shading.”

If your home is decorated in Tallahassee’s favorite style – traditional, with lots of columns and moldings – “maybe you don’t need to play up the ceiling,” Solomon says. “Not every part of the room has to jump out at you.” But a living area with a beach cottage feel would be just the right place to have a ceiling covered in butt-jointed wood (planks that are installed with small spaces in between), she says.

A home with a Victorian feel might be appropriate for the embossed, paintable wallpaper known as anaglypta, which comes in a wide variety of patterns and textures, including one that can be faux-painted to resemble a tin ceiling. Or consider using the real deal with Metallaire decorative ceiling tiles and cornices from Armstrong. Made of steel, these panels come in steel, brass, copper, chrome and paintable white. Moderna has created a line of laminate planks with a special clip system that makes them easy to attach to the ceiling.

‘Jewelry’ and ‘Furniture’
A ceiling can be just as stylish as walls and floors, says Dawn Wainright, a salesperson at Caldwell’s Classic Collections.

As an example, she says chandeliers can go way beyond their practical function.

“We always say they’re the jewelry of the house,” Wainright says. From crystal to contemporary to more of an arts and crafts style, lighting fixtures can serve as a perfect final touch to a room’s décor, she adds.

Many companies are creating options in ceiling-hung rail lighting – with either decorative pendant lights hanging from cables or directional lighting heads attached.

“It doesn’t have to have the big thick track on the ceiling,” Wainright says. “It’s a real clean look.”

Wainwright disagrees with the common thought that hanging a white fan on the ceiling makes them “disappear.”

“I feel like a fan is like a piece of furniture for the ceiling,” she says. “(Manufacturers) have come out with a lot more different blade looks” – everything from carved wood ones that look like bamboo to ultra-contemporary styles shown by the Modern Fan Company.

A simple, elegant addition to offset a lighting fixture or a fan is a decorative medallion.

“People use fans and special lighting fixtures more than ever before,” says painter Cox. “Very often on a chain or a fan base they look startlingly unanchored, so they started with the medallions.”

But please, Cox implores, do not just stick one up there in its original white incarnation.

“Why spend the money on one and have it sit there unnoticed?” he asks. “When they are white, whew, they look like a fresh bowl haircut.”

The Ultimate Ceilings
One of the showiest, and most expensive, options for the ceiling is a hand-applied decorative treatment such as painting or plasterwork.

Be prepared to gird your wallet; it can cost from 50 percent to 100 percent more to apply a faux finish to a ceiling than it does a wall.

Much of that cost differential can be attributed to logistics – the faux artists are going to be plying their craft atop ladders or scaffolding with their heads hyperextended backwards.

“Physically it’s much more demanding than doing a wall; it takes more time,” Phillips says.

A lot of concentration is required to maintain that “consistently inconsistent” look of faux painting.

“It’s hard to keep your perspective … hanging upside down,” says Cox, who was trained in New York and works locally with Phillips on decorative projects. “But those figures aren’t really important, because what really offsets the fact that it costs more do a ceiling is that they’re so much smaller” than the square footage of a room’s walls.

Costs also can be lower because decorative finishes are usually reserved for smaller spaces such as powder room, foyers and dining rooms.

“You’re not going to do an expensive, elaborate finish on a large ceiling because it would be overbearing,” Phillips says.

An upscale finish that has recently come into favor is Venetian plaster – actually a revival of a very old technique. The material is not paint, but a veneer of plaster created from ground limestone. The addition of color or metallic

elements to multiple layers of plaster gives the ceiling a look of richness, movement and brilliance.

Of course, there also is the favored ceiling of the Renaissance – paintings on the ceiling. Today, most are not painted directly on the ceiling – à la Michelangelo – but are painted on canvases that are attached overhead, say Cox and Phillips.

For the ultimate in luxe, gold leafing is a very traditional, very labor-intensive, very pricey ceiling finish. The ceiling is painted red or black and then 2-inch-by-2-inch pieces of gold (“so fine you can’t breathe heavily while you’re putting it on,” says Phillips) are individually applied using adhesive and rabbit-hair brushes.

“It’s not for someone who redecorates their house every five or 10 years,” Phillips says.

The Bottom Line on the Top of the Room
An investment in the ceiling can be a joy forever, according to designer Thompson – or at least for a long time.

“I don’t like trends things,” he says. “I want to look up at the ceiling 10 years from now and love it just as I do now.”

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