Looking Up

With the right touches, ceilings can add extra interest to a room

April 05, 2009|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Michelangelo was on to something when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Pope's residence. A tip of the head and viewers are transfixed by what lies above.

In many of today's houses, looking up reveals little more than an empty square, so focused are we on drawing attention to the walls and furnishings. But a ceiling doesn't need to be a boring white space overhead.

Instead, it can be textured, coffered, beamed, tinned, trimmed or painted, to name just a few choices.

"I think of it as a fifth wall," says Paula A. Henry, owner of Simply Put Interiors, a Baltimore-based decorating and home-staging company.

And she's not afraid to paint it. Her own dining room ceiling is purple. The ceiling in her guest room is wallpapered black, studded with glow-in-the-dark stars. And she has used red paint, blue paint, bead board, molding and fabric on ceilings in clients' homes.

"You're only limited by your imagination," Henry says.

Whether you're buying or selling a home, experts such as Henry say that ceilings deserve your attention. For a buyer, it's a place where signs of leaks and other structural problems may appear. For a seller, ceilings provide an opportunity to distinguish a room - and your home.

"It adds character to a room," says Dee Cunningham, an Ellicott City-based painter and owner of Deelite Designs. "And it feels like you've finished it."

Structurally, there are also considerations. A ceiling with a stain can indicate a leak in a roof, or a plumbing problem, says Stephen R. Dallmus, a Baltimore-area home inspector for nearly 30 years.

"I look very closely at them," he says. "Cracks are also a signal to look more closely."

Architectural features such as beams can add visual interest to a ceiling, but don't be fooled. They can look sturdy but, in nearly all cases, they're entirely decorative, Dallmus says. "In my parents' house, the 'wood' beams were actually made of Styrofoam," he says.

While there are endless ways to decorate a ceiling, there are only a few materials that ceilings are made of: plaster and lath, rock lath and drywall.

Depending on the weight and age, a rock lath or plaster ceiling can start to separate from the wall. "I push on it, and depending how much it gives, I might suggest a new ceiling," Dallmus says.

In newer homes with drywall ceilings, garages are sometimes a trouble spot. "That's where ceilings are most likely to separate and possibly collapse," he says. The vibrations from the garage door are often the culprit.

How you treat a ceiling can change the perceived height of a room. For example, bringing a ceiling color down onto part of the wall can give the illusion of a higher ceiling, Cunningham says.

In restaurants, you'll notice sometimes ceilings are black. "It makes the ceiling disappear," she says.

A dark color on a standard 8-foot ceiling will give the illusion of dropping the ceiling, she says, making a room feel cozy.

"Some people are afraid to make a room look small," Cunningham says. "But if it's small, I say, 'Embrace it.' "

In rooms with high ceilings, a dark color can also make an overwhelming space seem more inviting, says Henry.

But if you're hesitant about painting a ceiling, Jodi Baumel can relate. When Henry suggested painting several ceilings in her Bel Air Colonial, Baumel says, "I was skeptical."

Her dining room ceiling is now painted - a color that is also on the columns in the room, though they are painted in a different texture.

"It brings everything together, instead of being stark white," Baumel says. "It's the first thing you see when you come in. It's, 'Oh, wow.' It adds warmth, too. It kind of hugs you."

In some regions, significance is attached to certain ceiling colors. In parts of the South, for example, some people believe blue ceilings scare evil spirits. Others believe blue is a harbinger of good luck.

Murals, especially of skies, are universally popular. In one showcase house, Cunningham recently painted a gold-glazed rope on the edge of a ceiling.

"It was just on the edge, just enough to finish the room," she says, adding that she also likes to use techniques such as gilding or using metallic paints that reflect light on ceilings.

But paint isn't the only option for distinguishing a ceiling. Fixtures and lighting can also add a different touch.

Margaret Rome, a Baltimore-based real estate agent and author, has listed a house on the waterfront in eastern Baltimore County in which all the ceiling fans are made from fishing poles. A chandelier in an unexpected place, such as a powder room, is another idea, Henry says. Wood paneling, bead-board, tiles, wallpaper and molding are other options.

Tray ceilings are especially popular in new houses in the Baltimore region, Cunningham says. Designers sometimes tuck lights into the recessed area for a stunning effect.

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