Reach for the Ceiling
There is a lot to be learned from the giants of Mid-Century design and architecture: how to embrace minimalism; how to let function dictate form; how to create a striking focal point; how to enhance the connection between indoor and outdoor spaces and bring nature back into the home. But one of my favorite things I learned from the best of Mid-Century design is to never settle for a boring ceiling.
I mean, just think about it - look how much real estate is hanging around up there being forgotten about, or even blatantly ignored, when designing or decorating a room! Almost without fail, this problem is endemic among tract homes, with their vast expanses of Swiss-Coffee-painted orange-peel-textured drywall ceilings, speckled with the unsightly pock of the ubiquitous 6-inch can light. But even the more refined of modern spaces often leave something to be desired simply by designing a room only from eye-level down.
Take this living room, for example:
There are a lot of things I love about this room. For instance, I adore the wide-plank herringbone flooring. I love the simplicity of the fireplace and how it's isolated to form a natural focal point in the room. I delight in the way the fine lines of the sofa tables perfectly echo the character of the fireplace. A few warm decorative touches even keep it from becoming too sterile. At eye-level. But I can't help wishing there was something visual going on above it all to provide that final element of cohesion in the room. It feels as though everything is just floating around on a separate plane below that giant expanse of white. Even a subtle difference in paint color or finish, or some simple dimensional ceiling lights or a choice pendant would help to balance the space out.
In contrast, I find this modern Swedish living room wildly pleasing:
For the most part, this space employs the same type of simplicity in design as the room we just looked at, though with a few fun twists such as the bright orange Arne Jacobson Swan Chair and the various hair-on-hide blankets strewn around on the floor and sofas. But what draws me in the most about this room is the ceiling. It too is naturally simple, because it is honest to the structure of the house (though I suppose that may also be true of the flat ceiling shown above, as there were no photos of the exterior provided). However, what I like best about it is the sense of peaceful motion it brings to the room, flowing out from the vertical arrow that is created by the fireplace, and naturally drawing the eye through the whole space in a smooth arc. It also manages to create intimacy in a room that could otherwise feel cavernous. Another element of this design that I particularly enjoy (and which is contrary to my own maximalist aesthetic) is the lack of artwork on the walls. For me, the blank white wall on the right perfectly balances and reflects the wonderful expanse of windows opposite, and gives the eye a small break between the furniture and the paneled ceiling.
A few other examples I love that sport the whitewashed exposed beams and paneled ceilings lending oodles of movement:
This Granville, Ohio post-and-beam masterpiece, circa 1969;
And this renovated Eichler home in California.
On the more nature-inspired side of the spectrum, we have stunning homes like the 1968 Pescher House by Richard Neutra:
I love the way the built-in seating and minimal furnishings allow the stunning wood and stone of the house to take the lead, while the many thoughtfully-placed windows also create lightness and embrace the beautiful setting. Again, even though (or maybe even especially because) the ceiling is flat, the wood paneling creates movement in the space, leading the eye to the various design elements and even into other parts of the house.
Neutra's 1962 Pitcairn House also uses wood paneling to draw the eye down the length of the room toward the great stone fireplace, and the dark beams create cohesion by echoing the dark upholstery of both the sofa and the Eames lounge.
And finally, this Australian renovation embraces the Mid-Century character by preserving the wood-clad ceiling, providing a warm counterpoint to the white cabinetry and concrete floors, and keeping the tall space intimate in spite of the generous natural light and floating effect created by the clerestory windows.
In fact, the use of windows at ceiling level in these last three examples is an important source of light and reflection that keeps these dark ceilings from becoming oppressive, allowing them to function successfully as described. I suspect that the white ceilings in the first three examples may have originally been stained wood, as you'll notice the windows at ceiling level in those homes as well.
Photo credits, in order of appearance: