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The All-Important Wall Frieze

The decorated interior wall frieze came into its own during the Victorian era, and was adapted for the lowered ceilings and simpler treatments of the Arts & Crafts period.
landscape frieze (‘Birchwood’) from Bradbury & Bradbury

A deep landscape frieze (‘Birchwood’) from Bradbury & Bradbury exemplifies both the palette and stylized forms of the era. 

The high ceilings (nine feet or more) in late Victorian-era houses called for wall division to balance the room’s proportions, bringing the eye down from the ceiling. The popular tripartite treatment called for a wainscot or dado, a field or fill area, and a narrow frieze above the picture rail, each decorated differently. The frieze might be covered with an embossed material like Lincrusta; hand-painted, stenciled, bordered or striped; or embellished with detailed plasterwork. Uplifting mottos and quotations were favored in dining rooms and libraries.

hand-painted frieze is by artist C. J. Hurley of Portland

The unique hand-painted frieze is by artist C. J. Hurley of Portland; colors are bright but still keyed to the fir woodwork.

Still, the frieze was not abolished with the lowered ceilings of bungalows and Craftsman houses. Rather, the frieze was often a deeper section of upper wall surmounting a high wainscot and plate rail. The frieze could be 14" to 27", or even deeper. In rooms without a wainscot, the frieze survived as a band above the picture rail, with a single wall fill treatment running to the baseboard.


With the preponderance of woodwork in Craftsman homes—such as colonnades, inglenooks, and high wainscots—often the only wall surface left for embellishment was the frieze, and so it became a dominant decoration in a room with wood-clad (or painted) walls below, and little ceiling ornamentation.

bungalow dining room with ceiling beams

This dining room in a bungalow in Mill Valley, California, is uncannily well preserved. The subtle, gold-tone frieze remains, as does the dark texture paper used between ceiling beams. A high wainscot in redwood lines the room at the same height as the cabinets.

Recommendations for decoration included specially designed wallpaper friezes, with patterns that might be geometric or foliate, or presented as an abstracted landscape, or with pendant ornaments that repeated regularly around the room. Decorating in the Arts & Crafts era brought nature indoors, so vines and abstract floral designs were popular, as were idyllic woodland scenes, animals, and sea motifs. For bedrooms and in Colonial Revival treatments, a plain painted frieze, often in the same off-white color of the ceiling, was popular.

Bradbury’s ‘Oakleaf Frieze’

White paint would have made beams and woodwork in this dining room flat and dark; the warm mid-tones bring out the color in the wood. Bradbury’s ‘Oakleaf Frieze’ is an authentic example of a period pendant frieze. Note the use of subtle, coordinating paper and narrow borders between beams.

Burlap was another suggestion (not only between wainscot battens but alternatively in the frieze), as was simple hand stenciling. Stencil patterns were simplified versions of wallpaper motifs. To blend with natural-finish woodwork in Arts & Crafts houses, dominant colors in the frieze moved toward warm and earthy tones, with dull greens, browns, deep grey-blues, russet, and gold all popular. The wall area below the frieze, when a high wainscot was not present, would be treated simply, with a matte paint finish or perhaps striped or covered in a very plain coordinating paper.

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