down2earth Interior Design - designing the fifth wall - Philadelphia Inquirer article

Your Ceiling: The Fifth Wall in Interior Design

I am a big theater person, and therefore I’m used to talking about the fourth wall. So when Terri Akman contacted me because she was writing a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the “fifth wall”, I did a double take. What, exactly, did she mean by fifth wall?

Well, it turns out, folks are now referring to the ceiling of a space as the fifth wall. And of course, as interior designers, we have been thinking about this all-important plane for years. Adding color and texture to the ceiling is one way to increase the richness of a room’s décor. You can see examples of homeowners turning their ceilings into a fifth wall in Terri’s article.

down2earth Interior Design - designing the 5th wall - mudroom with tongue and groove wood ceiling

A tongue and groove wood ceiling in the mudroom of D2E’s owner and Design Director, Amy Cuker.

Inspired by this article, we want to take you a little deeper and help you understand how we, as professional interior designers, decide when to turn the ceiling into a decorative element in a space and show you the ways we’ve glammed up some ceilings.

So, how do we know when it’s time to create a special ceiling? We take our cues from the architecture and the client. Sometimes the ceiling is low and we don’t want to do anything that will make the room feel smaller. Then, maybe we paint the ceiling a plain white, or the same neutral color as the walls. But then, at other times….pow! We get a bolt of inspiration and realize how much an interior can be enhanced by using an interesting material or color on the ceiling, especially if the ceiling has an unusual shape, or some decent height to it. Sometimes we’re seeking more definition in the floor plan of a room and the ceiling can help us define activity zones in the plan. Other times the walls are all spoken for but the room still needs a bolt of color. Below, I’ll walk you through four ways to achieve more interest in your interior design using the ceiling: tongue and groove wood, paint, adding faux beams, and wallpaper.

down2earth Interior Design - designing the 5th wall - tongue and groove ceiling in a mudroom

Another view of the tongue and groove ceiling in the Cuker mudroom. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

Tongue and Groove Wood

The large color image in the Inquirer print edition shows one view of my mudroom, and here is another that shows how I used oak planks to add interest to the ceiling in this interior.

down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - tongue and groove wood mudroom ceiling

Here the wood planks highlight the slope of the Cuker’s mudroom ceiling. Photo by Ryan Macchione.

In this case, I wanted to continue materials from the old part of the house into the new addition for continuity, but use them in a different way. So in my mudroom, I used wood on the ceiling, and the choice of wood is designed to reflect the species, color and width of the flooring in the rest of the house. It works really well here because the ceiling is tall and sloped, and the pattern of the boards coming together emphasizes the interesting ceiling shape. It also didn’t add a lot of cost because we would have had to drywall the ceiling if we hadn’t chosen to install the oak planks.

Painted Ceiling

Another space in my own home where I had fun with the ceiling is in my sunroom. I redecorated this space during the pandemic. It was a perfect pandemic project because you can access the space from the outside and close it off to the rest of the house, so I could have a painter working on the ceiling, but we weren’t in contact with one another.

down2earth Interior Design - designing the fifth wall - the sunroom's ceiling being painted aqua

The Cuker sunroom’s ceiling gets a fresh coat of paint.

I chose a soft aqua color, almost like the color of water in a pool. The idea behind the room was to make it like a resort, since we weren’t going anywhere for a while, and my family had enjoyed a couple of trips to Cancun.

down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - sunroom decorated in shades of turquoise, yellow and fuschia

The Cuker’s Cancun inspired sunroom, photographed by Rebecca McAlpin.

Painting porch ceilings blue is actually a common practice in the south. I Googled the reason, and I learned that the “practice traces back to the Gullah Geechee, enslaved people living in the low country of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Gullah folklore explains that ghosts, also referred to as ‘haints’, were not able to cross water. In order to repel evil spirits from plantations, porch ceilings were painted a soft blue.” This is according to Taste of Home magazine. My sunroom is a porch of sorts so it seemed fitting.

Faux Beams

We added beams just a couple of months ago to a client’s living room. Choosing the size and how to integrate these beams with a crown moulding around the top of the room was time-consuming and required true attention to detail, but by getting the proportions just right, we’ve added an element that looks like it’s always been part of the house. This is a way to add a little more architectural definition to a space.
down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - moodboard representing the addition of faux beams to a client's living room

Above is a moodbard where proposed adding the beams to this living room, and here’s a little reel for Instagram about some of the research it took to get the proportions just right.

And finally, below are the beams actually installed (space is still a work in progress).
down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - faux beams on a client's living room ceiling

Wallpaper

Remember the 70’s, when every powder room had a wallpaper ceiling, and the wallpaper likely had a foil element to it? Between the visual overload of that experience, plus the trauma of having to take down pasted wallpaper, a lot of people shied away from wallpaper for a long time. But our eyes have had a chance to rest, and wallpaper is back, big time. For those fearing a big take-down project, there’s now lots of peel and stick options (but don’t use those in a space that will get steamy).

We proposed wallpaper for the kitchen ceiling for this homeowner. She had a wild floor, but otherwise was opting for pale linen colored cabinets and white counters and backsplash. So we thought a gold paper on the ceiling would add a little zest and balance the floor.

down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - a moodboard featuring a wallpapered ceiling

Another client of ours has recently shared these images with us as inspiration for her daughter’s bathroom remodel. We’ll be going with classic neutral finishes on all the expensive stuff (tile, vanity, fixture) but then we plan to introduce this pop of color on the ceiling. And the good news is that when the young daughter outgrows this color, it is not a very expensive change to make, especially in a small bathroom.

down2earth Interior Design - designing your fifth wall - black and white bathroom with pink ceiling

Photo courtesy of My Home.

Hopefully you’ve been inspired to look up and consider how you can make your ceiling a focal point, as opposed to a forgotten element in the room. Need help getting to the next step? Complete the Client Contact Form on our website and we’ll get back to you!

2 Comments
  • Campbell Addison
    Posted at 09:32h, 10 October Reply

    Your innovative approach to interior design, especially considering the “fifth wall” concept, is truly inspiring. It’s evident that your keen attention to detail and creative use of elements like tongue and groove wood, painted ceilings, faux beams, and wallpaper can transform a space into something truly remarkable. Your projects, from the mudroom with its sloped oak planks to the sunroom’s aqua-painted ceiling, showcase your talent for making ceilings not just a structural element but a captivating part of the overall design. Your ideas are fresh and accessible, providing a burst of inspiration for homeowners. Bravo!

  • Lowe and Bespoke
    Posted at 05:59h, 08 February Reply

    This is really interesting, the ceiling is so easy to neglect but serves a huge purpose in transforming the look of a room.

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