Looking Up: Kitchen Ceiling Design

Although often taken for granted in the design of a kitchen or bath, the ceiling offers considerable opportunity to define and impact the aesthetics of the space. Indeed, with the varied extremes in heights of ceilings and room dimensions today, the finish and details of the ceiling have been garnering more attention in the design process, creating new design opportunities.

There are many times when a white eggshell paint will provide the look and maintenance desired for the ceiling, while tray and coffered ceilings offer beautiful if costly options. Today, there is so much more that can and sometimes needs to be incorporated to bring that extremely high ceiling to a more human scale, or to offer that small, tight space a greater sense of openness.

This month’s column will look at what’s driving the increased interest in the ceiling and some of the ideas that are showing up as designers give a closer look to this aspect of the rooms we design.


Why now are we paying more attention to the ceilings as a design enhancement in the kitchen and bath? We have moved to common ceiling heights of nine feet, and not uncommon heights of more than this, sometimes challenging our ability to maintain proportion and balance in the spaces we are creating. In remodels, we may be held to a traditional height of eight feet, and we are trying to raise the visual sense of height to that current standard of nine feet.

The ceiling treatment can help achieve goals related to the visual height desired. The ceiling can also be a focal point, or a finishing and defining detail when a large space needs to feel cozy or spaces need to be better defined.

At the opposite extreme, we may be working in very small spaces, whether kitchen or bathroom, and the ceiling details can help expand and lighten the space. The materials and finishes also strengthen our design aesthetic, whether it’s a reclaimed wood in the kitchen, or a textured tile in the bathroom, or even a skylight over an island.


Considering a common challenge today – the significantly higher ceiling – we can either emphasize the height and the openness of the space or bring the visual space down, with how we treat the ceiling and the walls above cabinet height. With judicious use of color, contrast and mouldings, we can create a horizontal break and a focus at this mid-point above the cabinets, bringing the emphasis off the high ceiling.

Lowering a portion of the ceiling by creating a dropped ceiling or a soffitted area in the open space, such as over an island, can help bring the height down. While we are not going back to the popcorn texture and dropped acoustic tiles of the ’70s and ’80s, the use of sound-absorbing materials can also help with the acoustical challenges a high ceiling creates. Adding accent cove and other lighting in the dropped soffit can further accomplish this goal.

Artwork, display shelving or windows above the cabinet height can also take the emphasis off the higher ceiling, redirecting the eye visually to minimize the height of the ceiling.

Adding decorative materials such as beams or wood planks to the ceiling, especially in a darker finish, can also bring the height into a more comfortable proportion. The current trend of groupings of similar fixtures for lighting can better use the open space by lengthening and varying the cords on hanging fixtures.

When the challenge is a low ceiling or a small space, the ceiling can help open the space and give it definition. Whether large or small, a kitchen that is part of a great room in an open plan can be defined by a change in ceiling height, material or color. Using a lighter color and more ambient lighting can also open a smaller space, and the ceiling offers great opportunities for this, especially for cove or other indirect lighting. Minimal mouldings, cabinetry flush with the ceiling and minimum contrast will also help to visually grow the room, as will less wall cabinetry, more windows and negative space.


As a tool to enhance the character of a room, the ceiling can be handled as a “fifth wall.”
In other words, common wall treatments such as wallpaper, a textured contrasting material or increased glazing, or varied heights and finishes, and contrast in materials and mouldings, can be used to create a statement ceiling that acts as a compelling part of the overall design.

Although the kitchen ceiling is increasingly getting the attention it deserves, the bathroom is lagging. However, this, too, offers great design prospects, starting with the increased drama created when using the ideas already being designed into kitchens. Opening and raising the height and incorporating a tray or coffered ceiling, or just raising the ceiling with a dropped area to define one zone or another, can be an effective design strategy. Particularly over the tub, a dropped ceiling or a domed or coved one can create the focus on luxury and comfort desired in even the smallest bath.

Whether the space is a minute galley kitchen or a generous master suite, the ceiling can help define the space and bring home the design sensibility of a room. Acknowledging the amount of square footage a ceiling offers, it seems obvious why kitchen and bath designers are taking advantage of this aspect of their spaces. Perhaps the next project you work on will include a closer look at the impact of the ceiling on your design, and hopefully the ideas offered here may be a good reminder or addition to your tool box going forward. ▪

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