Ceiling decoration that goes above and beyond
No longer just a plain white afterthought: designers are vamping up the fifth wall
Serena Fokschaner APRIL 28, 2023
Sculptor Geoffrey Preston’s Georgian-style ceiling rose © Nick Carter
The ceiling is the most visible of domestic surfaces. Yet it is also the most overlooked. We can devote hours dipping into tester pots or poring over wallpaper swatches, but the ceiling is where we invariably default to the standard decorating option: a dab of filler, a coat of white emulsion and the job is done.
Now, say designers, it is time to put the ceiling in the spotlight. Illusionistic, dramatic, escapist, cosy: the fifth wall can be whatever you want it to be.
The decorative impact of the fifth wall hit a low point in the 20th century. Architect Andrea Marcante blames it on Modernism. “From the 1920s, with the influence of architects like Le Corbusier, rooms became smaller and ceiling heights dropped. Over time it turned into a service centre for downlights, air conditioning, smoke alarms,” says Marcante, co-founder, along with Adelaide Testa, of Turin-based practice Marcante-Testa.
His interest in the ceiling was sparked by an unlikely source: the late American psychoanalyst James Hillman once wrote an article entitled “Happiness Begins at the Ceiling”. Hillman believed that interiors can have a positive effect on our wellbeing.
“In the past, decorative ceilings stimulated the imagination, and encouraged you to turn your gaze upwards. Modern ceilings do the opposite, says Testa. “That’s why we make them an important part of our work.”
For the design of an apartment in Trieste, Marcante and Testa drew on the history of the Italian city, once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Off-the-shelf mouldings, cut into striking graphic patterns and applied to ceilings, nod to the work of Secessionist Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann. For a Paris apartment, they used a modern ceiling rose inspired by the priestly vestments of the Saint-Sulpice church opposite it. Walking in, it is impossible not to look up.
A church-inspired ceiling in Paris by Marcante-Testa – ph. Carola Ripamonti