As a design element, it seems innocent enough. After all, it’s a clean, unobstrusive shade of white. It’s basic, and it’s functional. What’s the harm?

Plenty. The truth is: your bland ceiling may be doing more than you realize to detract from the look of your carefully-designed, creatively-decorated room.

In fact, the more dynamic your design scheme, the more a boring, uninspired ceiling can become an unintended focal point, drawing attention to itself by its very lack of character.

If you’ve lavished attention and inspiration on the four surrounding walls and skimped on the “fifth wall” over your head, don’t despair –creative solutions abound. Whether you choose to go the DIY route — or brainstorm with a professional designer and color consultant — you can find a ceiling treatment that expresses your personal style while enhancing the existing décor. The proper treatment can even help correct architectural drawbacks, making a too-high ceiling appear less intimidating, or helping to make a lowslung ceiling appear loftier.

The key to success is incorporating the ceiling into the tone, style and furnishings of the room. For example, if you’ve created a cozy “shabby chic” cottage look, complete with ceruse finish on the hardwood floor, you probably wouldn’t want to add formal, elaborate crown moldings; crisp white wainscoting would be a better choice.

Get Colorful

A well-chosen color in the appropriate finish can quickly ease the monotony of a basic white ceiling. Most designers recommend staying within the same color family as the walls, and going a shade lighter for low ceilings and a shade darker for high ceilings. Of course, a crisp white ceiling can also be effective when paired with interesting molding or detail work.

As you make your choice, remember that colors always look darker on walls than they do on the swatch; this effect is even more pronounced when it comes to ceilings. Many paint companies offer helpful free apps for auditioning colors. If you’re having trouble deciding between shades, apply the front-runners to small pieces of poster board and attach them to the ceiling, then observe them at points throughout the day and evening to see how the samples look as the light changes.

Your choices are not limited to solid colors, of course. A contemporary, dramatically-styled room could benefit from a bold, zigzag pattern in eye-catching colors that resonate with the color scheme of the furnishings.

For a Too-High Ceiling: Divide and Conquer

You love the open, expansive feeling of your cathedral ceiling, but one drawback is that very high ceilings tend to have an engulfing effect on furniture, making even your most dramatic designs feel… well, small. Bring an “uppity” ceiling down to size — while still allowing it to show off its grandeur — by partitioning it. Stately wooden beams, upholstered acoustical panels and coffers – sunken panels defined by trim – can all fill the bill, while adding beauty and texture overhead. The main guideline is that there should be no disconnect between the styles; trim on the coffers should resonate with trim used elsewhere. If your furnishings are dark, rich-looking and elegant, choose deeply stained beams for cohesiveness.


Turn it Upside Down

For an unconventional but effective technique, you might consider installing a tongue-and-groove hardwood floor on the ceiling. This increasingly-popular trend, used mostly with high ceilings, showcases the lustrous beauty of hardwood, while the planked effect provides much-needed texture and partitioning.

Uplifting Effects

A low-slung ceiling can make a room feel confining, dark and unwelcoming, while making you feel claustrophobic. You can give the illusion of more height by echoing the wall color in a lighter shade. Using paint with a semi-gloss finish — more reflective than flat paint — can also help with opening the room up.

You can also combat the gloom by using creative lighting. Concealing lights behind a soffit can mimic the effect of a skylight, and trick the eye into thinking the light is natural.


Dress It Up

The addition of crown moldings is another way to add drama to a boring ceiling. In addition to adding instant depth and dimension, moldings have a unifying effect, and can reinforce the coherence of your design scheme. You can use moldings to achieve a “tray” effect; painting the insides and borders of the tray can help you shade and highlight the area for even more visual interest.

Grasscloth panels – natural sea grasses secured to a rice paper backing – are becoming increasingly popular as a wall covering; use them on your ceiling for an organic, clean and contemporary look. Their pleasing natural texture and subtle colors can bring visual interest to a flat ceiling; a coffered ceiling can be enhanced by grasscloth in the panels between the trim.

Finally, don’t overlook the power of stencils to add charm to a ceiling. Accentuate a chandelier with an intricate stencil around the base, or apply metallic foil medallions for glitter and drama. These versatile decorations also allow you to create the effect of crown molding, highlight tray ceilings, or grace the ceiling’s corners. Inexpensive and easy to install, stencils are available in a wide range of patterns, including Victorian, lace, arabesque, geometric and floral.

Now you’ve glimpsed some of the creative trends and design concepts that are available, you’re ready to go to work on your ceiling and make it what it should be: your beautiful room’s crowning glory.

About the Author

Molly Hilton is the owner of Renaissance Painters in Toronto and has devoted more than 30 years to home renovation, painting, and custom home building. Her unique design concepts bring homes to life with colours and unique pieces that are artfully placed to draw attention to the most powerful and distinctive features of a home.