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Designers look to ceilings for creative opportunities

Things are finally looking up for ceilings. As we’re staying put in our homes, the fifth wall is getting attention.

For decades, ceilings have been ignored blank canvases and missed opportunities. But that’s never been the case in Sally Hilkene’s Mission Hills, Kan., home.

The interior designer’s music room already had ceiling details, but Hilkene darkened and distressed the corbels to really play them up.

Then there’s her dining room, inspired by an Italian monastery’s version of the heavens, with hand-painted Latin terms for sunsets and her three sons’ birthdates.

But the piece de resistance is the family room Hilkene added to the home. Wooden beams accentuate the cathedral ceiling. The focal point of the room is a salvaged 15th-century Italian ceiling as wall art with eyebrow windows to let in light.

“Don’t we spend most of our lives sitting or lying down?” asks Hilkene, owner of Churchill clothing and home fashion stores in the Kansas City area. “So why shouldn’t ceilings be interesting?

“They can tell our personal stories, our family histories and even our fantasies, taking us away and bringing us peace.”

With clients, Hilkene plays therapist to project their interests and dreams through design. And that isn’t limited to the walls, furniture and decor. Using overhead space, one client’s ceiling creates the feeling of sitting under a cherry blossom tree.

“Maybe my need to make the ceilings pretty comes from growing up in a four-poster tester bed with draperies, and I’d stare at the fabrics and folds above me,” she says.

“I use thick crown molding to play ceilings up. It doesn’t have to be super expensive; you can put together two trim pieces.”

Interior designer Becky Mosby of Edgevale Interiors also appreciates ceilings with charm and character.

Her store’s powder room ceiling is papered with a red Jaima Brown wallpaper, adding a rich layer to an already opulent room with gold-and-silver cabinetry and black draperies.

“It’s comforting while still adding a pop of color,” Mosby says.

Still, she concedes that when you wallpaper or paint the ceiling in a dark color, you’ll need more lighting; the tiny-but-tall bathroom contains four light fixtures.

Artist Devon Himes of Kansas City, who works with paint and plaster, creates interesting ceilings using old and new methods.

One coffered ceiling in a Colorado project featured rosettes made of barn wood accented with lichen, silvering and baked-off paint. Another ceiling project featured a tortoise-shell pattern.

“People have been coming around from the plain white ceiling because they do really complete the space,” Himes says. “But they’re tricky. They reflect everything around them.”

Modern furniture maker Jason Milford of S(Lab) in Kansas City wanted the interior character of his Midtown brick over-under duplex, built in 1905, to live up to its interesting exterior, featuring a terracotta roof. He started with the ceilings.

In the dining room, Milford used Lincrusta, a British wall covering invented in 1877, heralded as the first washable wall covering.

It appealed to Victorians who liked its durability and ornate effects. The name comes from Lin for linum (flax, from which linseed oil is made) and Crusta (relief).

Before choosing Lincrusta, Milford also considered Anaglypta, invented in the 1880s as a flexible alternative to Lincrusta. Anaglypta is made of wood pulp and cotton, and like Lincrusta, the textured pattern can be painted.

“The Anaglypta looked like dot-matrix printing compared to Lincrusta, which has a deeper pattern,” Milford says.

Working with the deeply embossed Lincrusta was challenging. Each of the four rolls weighed 40 pounds. It also required more trimming and cutting than he expected.

“Next time, I’d definitely hire a professional wallpaper hanger,” says Milford, who estimates he spent $800 in materials. “Still, people love it. When they see it, they say ‘Oh, my.’ ”

Milford’s bedroom ceiling, which he installed with his wife, Amy Bhesania, uses wooden ship lap in random widths. The effect is modern and interesting.

“I like the idea of living in a space,” he says, “not a box.”

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