By Stewart Allen Morgan, Senior Designer White River Hardwoods
Before the Renaissance, the structural beams in a ceiling were generally exposed. Over time, the crossing members would become more integrated with the main beams, creating deliberate rectangular pockets of space, or coffers, between them. In Ancient Rome, even stone and concrete arches and domes, like at the Pantheon, were coffered. This was done to lighten the load while still maintaining the grid of structure that the beams forming the coffers would provide, in much the same way as rib vaulting in Medieval churches did. Coffers have since evolved from a practical need to a stylistic choice.
In its most basic form, a coffered ceiling is a beamed ceiling with beams running perpendicular to each other in a grid of squares or rectangles. Octagonal coffers were especially popular in antiquity and in the Renaissance. But today we also see coffered ceilings with more unique shapes such as a central circular beam with spokes radiating from it, or systems of elaborate serpentine curved beams.
The beams could be left plain, but a myriad of elements can be added to decorate them. Crown moulding often trims the place where the beam meets the ceiling and can partially or completely cover the beam sides. Beam bottoms can be plain, have panels, or be decorated with onlays/appliqués. The space within the coffer could be left as exposed drywall, sheathed by plywood, or covered by a medallion. The options are seemingly endless.
While coffered ceilings were originally structural, now they are generally for purely aesthetic purposes. If proportioned properly, a coffered ceiling can make a room feel bigger through the trompe l’oeil effect of visually pushing the ceiling upward. Although, the converse is true if the components are improperly proportioned or the ceiling is too low. This is one thing to especially keep in mind if adding a coffered ceiling to an existing structure.
Another concern is the weight of the coffered ceiling. Although their original intention was to lighten the load of the ceiling, modern coffers are usually not structural and add to the ceiling weight. The actual structural members of a ceiling must be sized with the weight of a coffers in mind.
One must also keep in mind where the lighting and HVAC registers will fit into the design of the coffers. If the ceiling goes into new construction, all of these elements can be designed to work with each other, whereas when fitting a coffered ceiling into an existing structure, avoiding lighting and HVAC can be tricky.
Coffered ceilings can have a huge impact on the aesthetics of a room, adding detail and interest to an otherwise underutilized yet unencumbered ceiling space. But careful planning must be done to ensure that one is the right fit for a room. From rustic to elegant, modern to Classical, these beamed ceilings are a great way to give an empty overhead plane a touch of style.