- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

The art of home decorating today is all about subtlety: adding tasteful elements of design without too much clutter.

And the decorating doesn't have to stop at the top of the walls. The ceiling is a perfect place to get creative, in an innately subtle way. After all, we don't often walk around with our necks craned to look at it.

Houses built today take full advantage of this concept, with two-story foyers a standard, topped with vaulted, beamed or cathedral ceilings, says Washington designer Ann Praxton.

"People suddenly realized they could make a more dramatic entryway by pushing the ceiling up," she says. "The beams or vaults give them a sort of castlelike feel, and are very popular for upscale homes."

Not everyone is in the midst of home building, of course. Thankfully, there are ways to enhance an already existing ceiling through easy-to-install tiles, textures or painted murals.

Adding texture

The atmosphere of a room can be changed completely simply by adding a swirl to the ceiling, says Doug Boyd, owner of D.L. Boyd Inc., a ceiling and wall restoration company in Hyattsville.

"We make swirls in the ceiling with different brushes or whisk brooms, right into the plaster," he says. "It creates a neat effect without much work."

To create a three-dimensional texture, Mr. Boyd applies latex-based plaster sprays with a machine to create snowflake- to sand-to popcornlike finishes (snowflake being the finest). Spray-on textures in many varieties can be purchased at home stores, to be sprayed by hand like spray paint.

Mr. Boyd says the finer aggregates are hottest for ceilings today.

"People now like a finer, cleaner finish," he says. "Some, like the snow-flake pattern, you have to practically get up on the ceiling to see."

But the effect is not lost. Spray-on textures add life to a room and will not flake off, are inexpensive (they cost $2 to $3 per foot) and easy to apply, and provide sound-deadening qualities, especially in large, uncarpeted rooms, says the Natural Handyman Website's article on texturizing ceilings (www.naturalhandyman.com).

Miles of tiles

Tiled ceilings add a gridlike, graphic appearance to any room. They are not as big for homes today as they were in the '50s and '60s, Mr. Boyd says, and are used more often in commercial spaces. Still, especially for rooms with pipes in the ceilings, they work wonders and look better than ordinary drywall.

These ceilings come in three types: suspended, tile and plank. They are mostly used in basements because they provide easy access to plumbing and electrical wires, says John Boa, head of Home Depot Gaithersburg's department of floors and walls.

"The tiles are set in a grid and can be popped in and out to get to plumbing in the ceiling," he says. "With drywall, you'd have to rip out the entire thing."

Ceiling tiles come in many designs, from wood to granite to tinlike finishes, and some can be painted as desired. They range in price from about $57 to $225 per room, depending on the room's size.

Personal murals

Murals painted on the ceiling can open up a room, says local muralist Suzanne Codi. She says the skyscape mural is her favorite light blue with small white clouds or darker blue with stars as it creates the illusion of being outside.

"Usually people love to make the ceiling look higher, especially in a low-ceilinged house," Ms. Codi says. "And if you make the ceiling look like a day or night sky, it seems you're outside, and the ceiling sort of disappears."

Ms. Codi, whose office is in Northeast Washington, paints murals on ceilings and walls for private residences. She has created overhead artworks of animals, trees and landscapes, but her standard background is always the sky.

The same goes for children's rooms. Ms. Codi says she once recreated the entire "Hey Diddle, Diddle" nursery rhyme over a child's bed. It worked, because the cow jumping over the moon and the dish running away with the spoon were up against a night sky.

Subtlety is key in ceiling murals, because you have to live with them for so long, says decorative painter and muralist Joyce Danko of Bethlehem, Pa. She says she once painted a soft green apple tree on the ceiling of a little girl's room in Houston. The parents liked it so much, they moved their daughter to a different room and turned the room with the mural into a library.

"Sometimes people want electric blue backgrounds for their ceilings, and I try to steer them toward less intense colors," she says. "It's better to keep it soft, so you can live with it."

Of course, all rules are made to be broken.

One of Ms. Danko's favorite, most elaborate murals was one she did for a family in Great Falls in 1987 when she lived and worked in Baltimore. It was a rich, Sistine Chapel-esque scene on the living-room ceiling, with three cherubs bearing the likenesses of the family's three young daughters.

It took her a month to finish it, lying on her back on a scaffold with the three daughters there as models. The family has since moved out of the house, but the new residents have not removed the stunning artwork.

Ms. Danko says the family planned to move out twice before they finally did, but backed out because they loved the painting so much. Ceiling murals can also be painted on removable canvases, to make them more portable, but Ms. Danko decided against it in this case because the canvas wouldn't fit in her studio.

Murals can be personalized or just plain fun. Either way, they add an artful, stylized element to any room, in a place where you wouldn't likely hang a painting. They range from $400 to $10,000, depending on the size and detail, Ms. Danko says.

The ceiling doesn't have to be a boring, gray slab of drywall anymore. Whether you use texture, tile or a mural, your neighbors will walk in and wonder for a second what makes the room look so good.

More info:


• "Walls and Ceilings (Home Repair and Improvement)," by the editors of Time-Life Books, 1996. This book has simple instructions and diagrams detailing many projects for improving and beautifying ceilings and walls.

• "Walls, Floors & Ceilings," by editors Richard Ziegner and Neil Soderstrom, Creative Homeowner Press, 1997. More than 50 step-by-step projects in painting, tiling, plastering and otherwise improving ceilings, walls and floors are included.

• "Decorating Hints & Tips," by Julian Cassell and Peter Parham, Trade Paperback, 1998. Information on every decorating topic paint and color effects, tiles, etc. and checklists, charts and troubleshooting strategies can be found in this book.

• "Kevin McCloud's Complete Book of Paint & Decorative Techniques," by Kevin McCloud and Michael Crockett, Simon & Schuster Trade, 1997. This book has handy tips on using colors, textures, paints and surface finishes on ceilings and walls to create distinctive, dramatic effects.

On line

• The American Decorative Ceilings Web site (www.americandecorativearts.com) has information on vault, open beam, embossed metal, tunnelite, acoustic, cellular and linear ceilings, as well as skylights and more.

• Today's Homeowner.com has an article on tin ceilings, at www.todayshomeowner.com/interior/19990368.

• Walls & Ceilings magazine on line (www.wconline.com) has several articles on different ceiling treatments and trends.

• About.com (www.about.com) has several articles on ceilings with home expert and guide Tom Sporney, including "Strictly Ceilings," about choosing, installing and caring for textured and tiled ceilings.

• The Natural Handyman site (www.naturalhandyman.com) has information on texturizing ceilings using sprays and other techniques.

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