Staffan Tollgård, the Swedish London-based interior designer, is leading a tour of his plush new Pimlico showroom, and sharing his pet decorating hate: ceiling acne, he calls it. It’s an appropriate analogy for the kind of pimply, unattractive halogen downlighters that are to be found studded across white expanses of ceiling in a vast number of contemporary UK homes in recent years.
“Developers got hold of the idea and started peppering downlighters in a geometric grid pattern across ceilings – almost as if it were about how many they could fit in. But these should never exist in a five‑by-six pattern across the entire space,” says the designer, creator of private homes in the UK and Portugal. “They can be brilliant when used to highlight a hallway or to focus on a bank of wardrobes, but not a whole ceiling. It’s just not imaginative.”
It is also a lazy way, says Tollgård, of tackling, or attempting to tackle, the “elephant in the room” of interior design: the often featureless, flat white expanse that is an all-too-common result of an increasing number of open-plan refurbishments.
“We have completely forgotten about the ceiling,” says the designer, who laments that, over the past 30 years, “the more we have moved towards contemporary spaces, the more we have lost any kind of detailing. It happened with skirting and architraves, and then cornicing and roses – and what we were left with was a completely white, bare and horizontal surface.” The problem? “It can look naked and boring.”
It is also, agrees Charu Gandhi, missing a trick. The head of design at Morpheus has recently finished a new Chelsea town house with a range of overhead detailing, including a polished-plaster cinema room in the basement. She points out: “There was a time when the ceiling was all important – just look at Islamic decorative ones or Italian frescoes.” She is part of a return to a more adorned approach to what is above our heads – to rival that beneath our feet.
“I think we are coming full circle again,” she says, “and looking at what symbolises a luxurious home, rather than a modernist one. We are not just looking at decoration, but how you experience the space in your home, and how that decoration makes you feel.”
With her recent basement creation at Chapman House, Gandhi chose a dark-chocolatey plaster finish to the media room’s ceiling, because “we wanted to completely wrap the room and give the sense that the texture doesn’t end at the walls. The idea is to make you feel like you’re cocooned in an intimate subterranean place.” Even though her choice of polished plaster – layers of plaster, marble dust and pigment, laboriously applied by hand – is dark, “it has a high-gloss finish, and so picks up the lighting in the room in a lovely way. And it’s not a solid colour, so it has movement and a delicate feeling”.
Meanwhile, in a newly built project by the London-based architect Antonino Cardillo, for Rome-based client Massimiliano Beffa, the ceiling is at the very crux of the interior. House of Dust features a cave-like rough-plaster version that almost seems to drop down from the sky – it is purposely reminiscent of all kinds of subliminal historical references, in particular the vault of very early architecture.
“I’ve always been interested in ceilings,” says Cardillo. “The vault is the place where the architecture ‘happens’. It possesses an archetypal and sacred value. It goes back to the primary meaning of architecture, which is the protection of the cave, but also to its spiritual meaning, because every ‘vault’ is also the transfiguration of the sky in stone.” Previous Cardillo projects have included a double-height vaulted ceiling studded with gold mosaic, and each one tells a story. “Decoration has a profound subversive potential,” he says.
For owner Beffa, the finished effect was at first “oppressive – at the beginning I really thought that this couldn’t, shouldn’t, be my house”, he admits. However, after a while, it has become “ever more a part of it, strong and present. That first sensation of mine has completely gone. Sometimes I find myself reclining on the sofa in the evening, watching the reflections of the purplish light above, hypnotised.”
Cardillo’s example may be extreme, but developers and designers are realising that a considered ceiling can be the decisive factor between a standard interior and a truly high-end one. Chesney’s, the fireplace and stone specialist, has a showroom for its architectural arm, which is aimed at clients who request a similar level of detailing on their ceilings, staircases and doorframes as around their fires (cornicing from about £780 per metre). Company director Mark Burns says that stonemasonry work, such as vaulted versions and stone and marble cornicing has quickly grown to 30 per cent of its overall turnover – and is increasing still. “Houses are becoming ever grander,” he says, “and people are looking again at the stonemasonry details of the 18th and 19th centuries, albeit with modern structures beneath.”
Family-owned building company Broseley, which focuses on residential properties in central London, is meeting a similar expectation from clients for extra detailing inside their homes. Using Wandsworth-based Classic Cornice Company to work on projects including a £50,000 ceiling and cornicing scheme in a new Kensington house, Broseley is finding that, in particular, “more ornate work is coming back as specialist decoration becomes more sought after”, says MD John Thursfield.
Even on a smaller domestic scale, cornicing is regaining popularity. Architectural designer Ben Pentreath, co-owner of Bloomsbury furnishings store Pentreath & Hall, recently embarked upon a new range of cornice decoration – which is taken from National Trust properties – in collaboration with industry-favourite Stevensons of Norwich (from £29 for a 3m length). The idea, says Pentreath, was to produce a number of designs that would sit well within contemporary homes, rather like a “Farrow & Ball” of cornicing. To work, the creations were all taken from “the right historical examples, which meant not the grandest houses and rooms, but secondary and tertiary rooms – bedrooms, attics, corridors, small libraries and dressing rooms – and picking houses that are domestic in scale, not the massive country estates”.
Pentreath suggests that the return to ceiling detailing is down to a number of factors. “I like my friend Alan Powers’s theory, that when post-first-world-war fashions revealed women’s ankles for the first time, the whole of interior design was suddenly about looking down ¬ brightly coloured art-deco rugs, low-slung furniture – and plaster decoration was the first thing to be struck off.
“But I think people like detail and adornment. We respond to it innately,” he continues. “Also, we’ve got to spend our money on something… so surface decoration seems like a good place to start. Rory Sutherland, the vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather UK, tells an interesting tale about the negative economic effects of Shaker style on New England, America, in the 18th century. It is so plain and elegant that, as Shaker farmers amassed wealth, they had nothing to spend it on in their domestic settings; there was no lavish furniture, no expensive decoration. There is also tremendous interest in reviving historic detail in the home. Where so many cornices, staircases and fireplaces were covered up or boxed in during the 1960s and 1970s, people are keen to put the architecture back, even if they want the design, furniture and paintings to be contemporary. We enjoy the contrasts.”
Take award-winning designer Richard Found, of Found Associates, and his client, the radio and TV presenter Jamie Theakston, who is something of a serial renovator. His home in Chiswick was recently transformed with Found’s help. “The devil is in the detail,” says Theakston. “The original features are a vital part of the character of the house – whenever I start a project, I start from there.” In the case of the Chiswick property, where one reception room with highly ornate original plaster mouldings was knocked into another, the temptation might have been to do away with them. But Found’s practice replicated and extended the decoration in painstaking fashion. This contrasts brilliantly with a super-modern glass extension on the back, which features a glazed divide between the old brick and new pane, so that it almost appears to “float”.
“I think you have to do these things authentically or not at all,” says Found. “Our thoughts were, the more this looked like a period property, the better – to properly contrast with the contemporary extension.”
While historical accuracy in cornicing suits certain homes, Jake Solomon takes a wholly different approach. He set up Solomon & Wu in 2010 on discovering that there was a lack of contemporary cornice choices following a trip to the Louvre, where he marvelled at the frescoes and architectural detailing. The former professional basketball coach’s modern plaster-mouldings portfolio now includes designs such as Cubist (£70 per linear metre), a 3D linear pattern; Wave (£75 per metre), inspired by Japanese woodcuts and rococo decoration – and which features in a recent New York apartment renovation; Linear Structure (£63 per metre), an inter-crossing of decorative lines; and the very pretty, almost lace-like Caumont (£70 per metre), based on rippling water. The collections include not just cornicing but coving, corbels, ceiling roses and skirtings, too (from £50 per metre for cornicing). In the UK most installations are plaster-based, although designs for elsewhere can be moulded from resin to make shipping possible. And despite its taking “a while for people to get their heads around the idea, it has them thinking about mouldings in general again”, says Solomon, who is inspired by the architecture of Gehry and Hadid as much as by classical rooms and buildings. “There is so much potential for new ideas and risk taking.” The challenge, he says, is making ceilings interesting again while keeping decoration in line with the architecture.
This doesn’t necessarily mean surface elaboration per se. In Tollgård’s case, the vast majority of his projects now feature considered ceilings, but many go hand-in‑hand with lighting. Despite his critique of the downlighter, “lighting is integral to any decorative overhead scheme”, he says. (Morpheus’s Charu Gandhi, who is an advocate of chandeliers, agrees.) Invariably, Tollgård favours the specialist Soft Architecture systems from Italian brand Flos that he showcases in his new store, such as a Philippe Starck design for Flos (from £4,464) and recessed floral-embossed domes, by Marcel Wanders (from £259). The results of these creations – which also include the USO Boob 600 1L (from £228), where the lighting becomes the adornment via a system of plaster three-dimensional installations within a lowered false ceiling – “are seamless decorative lighting landscapes”.
But Tollgård is also a fan of simple architectural tricks that are inspired by contemporary hotels, such as hiding the light source behind indented channels or coffers of varying levels and depths (as shown in the recently finished modern interiors of an Arts and Crafts-styled mansion in Kingston, Surrey; dining room, and swimming pool). These types of devices are especially useful where a dropped ceiling doesn’t quite end at the walls (known as the “Halo”), so that light creates an atmospheric glow around the top of the room. With the mechanics hidden from view, the expanse above takes on a new vari-level interest, breaking up that dreaded white void.
“Such ceilings are atmospheric, modern and glamorous,” assures Tollgård.