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8 Designer Ideas for the Perfect Painted Ceiling


Designer Brian McCarthy opted for a chocolate-brown ceiling in his Manhattan apartment as a way to “bookend” the rug (“It creates a top and a bottom”) and to invite the eye to explore “beyond the parameters of the room,” he says. While brown may seem a heavy color choice, the goal was to draw focus to the classic white molding and architecture of the room; it also acts as a versatile backdrop that ties together the neutrals and the pops of colors in the furnishings.

Brian’s Tip:

“While so many people think a dark ceiling will be oppressive or make you too aware of the ceiling or draw the eye down, it does just the opposite. It adds volume and height by pushing the boundaries away.”

Painted ceilings are too often forgotten or overlooked, and their role is equally as important as the walls and the floor.

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— Brian McCarthy

In a Sitting Parlor

For a New York City apartment’s double-height entry parlor, decorator Jeffrey Bilhuber painted the seating area ceiling in a limy yellow as a way to bounce light from the windows and to complement the room’s classic antiques (yellow ceilings are a signature of many historic homes). The secret was to intensify the ceiling’s color. How? High-gloss lacquer, which brightened the color—and the room—to appear a bit more yellow.

Jeffrey’s Tip:

“The marble floor was the primary foundation of the room here, so the painted ceiling needed to play a neutral role. It’s not attention-getting; it’s much more subtle, more nuanced. It lets the furniture, the graphic of the marble, and the silhouettes be the focus.”

A painted ceiling can be just enough to direct but not divert your attention.

— Jeffrey Bilhuber

In a Dining Room

Use a very soft, light shade on the ceiling to contrast with more stately furnishings and rich textures. The subtle blue ceiling in this dining room by genius decorator Miles Redd recedes calmly into the background yet manages to remain a crisp focus. As the predominant solid color in the room, the pale hue opens up the dining space and softens the richness of the wallpaper, ornate rug, and dark woods.

Miles’s Tip:

“I love very flat paint or very shiny paint and really not much in between. And I love both finishes on ceilings, but mostly I go for flat. However, if you have a low ceiling, a glossy finish can really make it seem higher.” 

Prep work in glossy paint is more. Ceilings tend to have less prep because you don’t notice the flaws, but you do when it is glossy.

— Miles Redd

In a Small Foyer

Inspired by the late Albert Hadley, decorator Thom Filicia proves that a boldly lacquered ceiling is just the trick to make a jewel-box statement in small, in-between spaces such as this vestibule. The vivid emerald green helps set the space apart as a room and plays up the shimmer and shine of the furnishings.

Thom’s Tip:

“The high-gloss lacquered green walls and ceilings here helped open up and lighten the space, reflecting light while also giving this small transitional space a big personality and lots of impact.”

Painting the ceiling the same color as the walls can help to blur the natural boundaries in a space, making it feel larger and more open, while also containing it. 

— Thom Filicia

In a Guest Room

Brightly lacquered ceilings can give the illusion of height; Jeffrey Bilhuber’s own Manhattan guest room is a case in point. Rather than feeling compact or completely washed out under a white ceiling, the room’s grisaille shades of gray, mauve, and taupe and the sumptuous forms of the daybeds come into sharp focus beneath the tangerine ceiling.

Jeffrey’s Tip:

“A lot of people won’t think about the ceiling or putting a big jolt of color on there, and it’s rare they think about the highly lacquered ceiling. But the shine gives height, and the lacquer increases verticality. So instead of, say, 8 feet you now have 11 feet. It’s a modern faux finish.”

Ceilings are getting lower and lower and closer and closer. You’re going to have to address them. What you lost with lower ceilings in the 20th and 21st centuries you gain back with the illusion of height in the lacquered ceiling.

— Jeffrey Bilhuber

In a Drinks Room

Interior designer Anne Miller’s all-out approach for an English lounge area in a home takes red to new heights. Painting the walls, the molding, and the ceiling results in an ambience that’s comfy and cozy rather than crowded. Pillows, rugs, and accents with red undertones keep the palette consistent and inviting.

Anne’s Tip:

“I almost always do a painted ceiling. Contrary to general thinking, rather than make the room feel smaller, the continuous color makes the ceiling disappear, therefore making it seem larger.”

Sometimes it’s a continuation of the color of the walls that establishes a feeling of comfort and coziness.

— Anne Miller

In a Bathroom

Consider a modern, graphic approach to the painted ceiling, as celebrity decorator Nate Berkus does in his Hollywood Hills bath. As the only dark hue in the space, the jet black serves as an anchoring—and versatile—backdrop to the sleek elements in the space, from the gold pendant and the porcelain bathtub to the abstract art. Try using a black-painted ceiling to bring out the nuances of varying shades of white and off-white.

Nate’s Tip: 

“Painted ceilings can add so much drama, especially in a smaller space.”

Painted ceilings can add so much drama, especially in a smaller space. They’re also very unexpected.

— Nate Berkus

In a Bedroom

Pale blue can be an especially soothing counterpoint in a layered bedroom. By painting the ceiling in a serene sky blue, designer Miles Redd tempers the vibrant patterns and rich textures in this bedroom. Just remember to keep the color story consistent, as Miles does by bringing in varying shades of blue throughout the accents, the linens, and even the bed and the draperies; otherwise the effect may veer more cacophonous than calming.

Miles’s Tip:

“I often paint ceilings in Benjamin Moore Bird’s Egg blue with some white added to it. It approximates the sky and can make the ceiling feel higher. It is a nod to my Southern roots, where they painted porches with blue ceilings, and I always thought it should be a notion that should be expanded beyond a porch.”

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