What Is a Coffered Ceiling?

Stefanie Waldek
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kendall Wilkinson Design
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kendall Wilkinson Design

From House Beautiful

How many walls comprise a room? Most people might think four, but in our opinion, there are five. “I'm a huge proponent that ceilings are the fifth wall,” says New York–based interior designer Meagan Camp. Often overlooked by homeowners, ceilings are often quite literally a blank canvas for designers, and they’re a great place for adding architectural detailing to dramatize a room. “Anything to help draw your eye upwards gives the illusion of higher ceilings and grandeur,” says Camp. If you’re looking for inspiration, coffered ceilings are a popular—and quite historic—ornamental element that works well in many spaces.

What Are Coffered Ceilings?

“Coffered ceilings are a very classic architectural detail consisting of a series of rectangular, square, or octagon grids in three-dimension sunken or recessed panels,” says Camp. “The word coffer literally means ‘indentation.’” Essentially coffered ceilings have a decorative 3D grid embedded into them. Now don't get confused between a coffered and a tray ceiling: the former has multiple segments in its recession, while the latter is a single recessed form.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Kendall Wilkinson
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kendall Wilkinson

The History of Coffered Ceilings

When we say coffered ceilings are timeless, we mean it: they’ve been around for millennia. “Coffers were initially a creative technique to reduce the volume and weight of stone ceilings in ancient Rome,” says San Francisco–based interior designer Kendall Wilkinson, whose background is in classical design. “Eventually, they were formed out of wood cross beams creating a square or rectangular ‘coffers,’ or recesses in ceilings laid out in a repeating pattern.”

Coffered ceilings saw a surge in popularity in the Renaissance, and again in the 19th and early 20th centuries, notably in the homes of the wealthy elite, who were able to afford the expense. “The Frick, Studebaker Mansion and Biltmore Estate all used this technique on their ceilings,” says New York–based interior designer Becky Shea.

What Style of Decor Works Best with Coffered Ceilings?

“Emulating estates and manor houses, coffers are often paired with a more traditional interior design aesthetic,” says Wilkinson. “However, we have worked on several modern homes and recently installed a contemporary take on classic coffering without any decorative molding—a clean, recessed rectangular coffer with inset ambient lighting.”

At the end of the day, coffered ceilings are actually quite flexible in terms of style. “It comes down to the finish selections you make and how they pair back to the rest of the space,” says Camp. For instance, you could go with rough-hewn beams for a farmhouse look, or you could go all-out with ornate plasterwork for a Baroque-inspired space.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Becky Shea
Photo credit: Courtesy of Becky Shea

Why Should I Consider a Coffered Ceiling?

Aesthetically, coffered ceilings create a dramatic sense of dimensionality in a space—and they often exude a sense of extravagance. But coffered ceilings also have a practical side.We have been seeing this architectural detail pop up in our urban projects as they absorb sounds and can help to separate and divine zones,” says Camp. And they can be great camouflage. “They are also very useful to cover up architectural oddities of a ceiling’s structural elements, such as pipes or beams that cannot be removed,” says Wilkinson.

3 Things to Consider Before Installing Coffered Ceilings in Your Home

  • Make sure your ceilings are at least nine feet high. “Ceiling height should be nine to 10 feet or higher so that the beams don't feel like they're right on top of your head,” says Shea. “If the ceiling is too low, that's a nonstarter for me. We'll recommend another type of ceiling detail like shiplap or beadboard as an alternative.”

  • You can go bold with color! “Consider painting the coffered ceiling a complimentary color to the room, as it doesn't necessarily need to be painted ‘ceiling white,’ says Camp. “I've recently seen a ceiling with a coffered detailing painted black, and the dramatic paint color further enhanced the elegant detailing.”

  • Set a budget. “The first thing I'd suggest is ensuring that this beautiful ceiling detail aligns with the budget you have in mind,” says Shea. “There's a lot of craftsmanship that goes into creating these perfectly segmented details.” Read: coffered ceilings can get expensive fast. But the good news is they can add to your home’s resale value.

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