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Ceiling Beams & In Between

by Patricia Poore on October 12, 2016

in Floors, Walls and Ceilings

An original beamed-ceiling decoration scheme survives at the Lanterman House in California.

An original beamed-ceiling decoration scheme survives at the Lanterman House in California.

For a cohesive scheme, especially one alluding to our decorating past, don’t overlook the ceiling. Before Modernism, even residential ceilings were embellished with color, striping, cast-plaster ornaments, borders, specialty papers, and murals. Ceilings still were decorated between 1901 and 1945. Particularly in Arts & Crafts and English Tudor houses, main rooms often had beams along with subtle ornamental treatments.

In some rooms, the ceiling treatment played off the frieze, picking up its colors or repeating a motif. Complementary ceiling fill papers were light in tone and favored “natural” hues, such as limestone and sand colors, accented with eggplant, amber, and olive green.

Narrow borders along beams coordinate with the pendant frieze in a revival room. By Bradbury & Bradbury.

Narrow borders along beams coordinate with the pendant frieze in a revival room. By Bradbury & Bradbury.

After the First World War, European-influenced Romantic Revival house styles were built in the growing suburbs. Many walls and the occasional ceiling were troweled with textured plaster, to give an impression of age and patina. Ceilings were not universally monochromatic in this period, as they mostly were in Colonial Revival homes. Ceiling decoration was revived for Spanish Revival and Renaissance or Beaux Arts homes, where wood coffers, colored stains, painted decoration, and stenciling on or between beams were popular treatments. Tudor Revival houses had ceilings with heavy beams, or with “Jacobean” plaster featuring intricate strapwork. In libraries and dining rooms, panels between beams were painted with medieval or Tudor motifs, or covered in embossed leather or Lincrusta, or even fabric.

Ceiling borders, frieze paper, and wall fill are a suite of Arts & Crafts patterns from Bradbury & Bradbury.

Ceiling borders, frieze paper, and wall fill are a suite of Arts & Crafts patterns from Bradbury & Bradbury.

Box Beam Systems
From planbook bungalows to the Gamble House, houses of this period very often had a beamed ceiling or two. Beams typically appeared in dining rooms (along with a high wainscot), in libraries, and in living rooms. These were decorative rather than structural, alluding to ancient construction methods and low-ceilinged intimacy. The beams are not timbers but rather boards rabbeted together, leaving a hollow space. So-called box (or boxed) beams had many variations—in size, intersection plans, wood and finish, and details—but most were relatively simple and could be ordered from catalogs.

Some people have homes with original box beams intact, but for the rest, modern technology makes it easy to get the look. Evoba Wood Ceilings has systems made of grids of wooden panels and beams (available in nearly any finish to match existing woodwork). Barron Designs can help you make your own box beams. They supply faux-grained, high-density polyurethane beams as well as the real McCoy: wooden box beams made of reclaimed lumber.  Your finish carpenter can build hollow beams to match the scale and any details already in the room.

Between The Beams
Chamfers were highlighted in a complementary paint color during the Victorian period, less often after 1910. Stenciling was common as a subtle border along beams, in stylized nature motifs: irises, a Glasgow rose, oak leaves and acorns, done in the blue-greys and browns of fieldstone, summer-squash yellow or zucchini green. Deeper tones included crimson, moss green, ochre, terra cotta, Pompeiian red, and indigo. Dining rooms had the most elaborate stencils.

When crossing beams create recessed panels, these may be shadowed or bordered at the edges—or hung with gilded burlap. Bradbury & Bradbury has a gilded faux-burlap paper for this purpose. In the 1910s, recesses were dark; by 1920, a lighter effect was in vogue.

Decorated beams and panels crown a Southwestern Mission Revival dining room. Photo: Lanny Provo

Decorated beams and panels crown a Southwestern Mission Revival dining room. Photo: Lanny Provo

Beam Talk
Border: A narrow band of ornament, as along ceiling beams.
Box Beam “Faux” decorative beam built up from joined boards, as opposed to a solid structural beam. Wires were sometimes run in the boxes for beam lights. Multiple transecting beams lend a coffered effect.
Chamfer: On a ceiling beam, a finished edge that has been beveled or angled off, usually at 45 degrees.
Coffer: A sunken panel; a coffered ceiling is one with a grid of sunken and raised areas, in plaster, stone, or wood; generally now a decorative device.
Stencil Repeating ornament applied in paint through a design cut out of a template.

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