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Image courtesy of @cynthiaefrank IG

An Insider’s Guide to Tray Ceilings According to the Experts

Once the pride of fancy chateaus, today’s version makes any space a castle.
Roxanne Robinson Feb 10, 2021
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New York is a city made for looking up. This act generally brings to mind walking down Fifth Avenue admiring the towering skyscrapers. But then again, there is plenty to see once you step inside in one of those fabled buildings. In fact, many of them boast incredible tray ceilings.

One of the most famous views of Manhattan and a tray ceiling is at Rockefeller Center. Atop 30 Rockefeller Center sits New York City's famous Rainbow Room. A legendary gem among nightlife's shining stars, this room has hosted royalty and society's elite since 1934. After a renovation in 2014, guests gliding across the Rainbow Rooms' famous round dance floor could look up and see a stunning circular tray ceiling with a fully illuminated perimeter.

But this isn't the only establishment that boasts tray ceilings in New York or elsewhere. First, though, the question that begs an answer is, what is a tray ceiling?

Rockefeller center
Rainbow Room, Image Courtesy @Rockefeller Center

By Definition...

The name is indicative of what it looks like; an upside-down tray. In effect, this causes the ceiling to be inverted or recessed. The centerpiece section is either several inches or feet from the perimeter in order to draw the eye upward for a three-dimensional sense of depth and add visual enticement.

Tray ceilings can be impressive on their own, but it's easy to confuse tray ceilings with their more established cousins, the coffered ceiling. But the noticeable difference, in this case, is that a coffered ceiling possesses a grid pattern and historically tends to be more ornate, marked by a base relief.

Historical Tray Ceilings

Most certainly, one of the most famous ceilings is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed by Michelangelo in 1512. Another famous predecessor to the tray ceiling look is in the Chatêau De Versailles. Definitely, the best room in Louis the 14th’s country home is the Hall of Mirrors. Expressly, these are neck-pain worthy sites to behold.

While this is technically a barrel-vaulted ceiling, it's important to note that it's one of the most significant Renaissance - of both Italian and European - painted ceiling. Obviously, this ceiling was a tangible demonstration of wealth and status as these laborious ornate ceiling was only for wealthy citizens.

Hall of Mirrors
Hall of Mirrors, Image Courtesy @Shutterstock

The aforementioned coffered ceilings generally pre-date tray ceilings. The ancient Greeks and Romans used sunken panels or "coffers" to decorate ceilings and, most impressively, vaults. However, archeologists only discovered that in 2012. (Formerly they believed that a chateau from the Renaissance in France's Loire Valley was the treatment's origin.)  The ancient site was found during an archeological dig in the ruins of Herculaneum in Campana, Italy. Here, scientists noticed how the early Italians mastered a complicated process. The coffers' diminished scale is attributed to mathematical tiling or "tessallation" skills.

The Grand Ballroom

More recently constructed is another New York gem, the Plaza Hotel's legendary Grand Ballroom tray ceiling. This room, built in 1907, is famous for hosting lavish weddings and events such as Truman Capote's "Black & White Ball" and, more recently, Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary after-party. Highlighting the expansive ceiling are crown moldings framing multiple chandeliers stationed around the 500-person room. Certainly, this space, with its French Renaissance architecture, is ultimately the perfect place for a tray ceiling.

What Rooms Work Best For Tray Ceilings?

Explicitly, the tray's ceiling's counterpart, the coffered or curved ceiling, is known to improve the acoustics of a room by creating a barrier for sound transmission. Similarly, the curved ceiling is powerful as it helps disperse soundwaves throughout a space. But what is the purpose of a tray ceiling beyond aesthetics?

Grand Ballroom, Image Courtesy @The Plaza, New York

Hide It

It disguises unsightly pipes and electrical wiring in some properties where traditional walls aren't a practical option to hide them.  According to America's home remodeling patron saint, Bob Vila, a tray ceiling can mask unsightly issues. For example, older homes constructed before standard central heating and air conditioning can be retro-fitted to support a modern HVAC system using a them built as a casing to disguise the ducts.

Go For The Gusto

But, what about for dramatic effect? Especially in a new construction that lacks character, a tray ceiling instantly amps-up a space’s architecture merit. Being that most tray ceilings also contained recessed lighting around the room's perimeter, the obscured source of the illumination makes for a titillating scene. However, it's crucial to keep in mind that ceilings must be at least 8-feet high according to most building codes, so be sure that the original ceiling height is set at higher than the 8-foot minimum to keep construction to code. 

Size It Up

The room's size is also generally a consideration if you’re hoping to create a dramatic effect. For instance, a tiny room may feel even smaller with a tray ceiling. Consider the placement of the room in relation to the entire space as well. Presuming there is enough space, an entryway is a great place to add a sense of grandeur by incorporating a tray ceiling.

Four Ways To Style

Today's application of a tray ceiling can be thoroughly modern - not all need to evoke historical Renaissance architecture. Here, Nest Casa breaks down ways to achieve the look in your space.

1. The use of wall coverings and different shapes:

Who says wallpaper and textiles need only bedeck walls? To demonstrate, this sunny breakfast nook uses an Ikat-inspired paper on the ceiling, offsetting white trim. Additionally, the great effect of this tray ceiling is the hexagon shape accommodating the nook’s shape. Furthermore, bright pillows balance the colorful ceiling as placed along the bench.

2. Using neutral tones and a graphic treatment:

Playing upon the wall moldings’ graphic lines, this tray ceiling certainly borrows a trick or two from coffered ceilings. The central square frames the ceiling light fixture with “arms” jutting off each side. In this case, recessed lighting between the central square and edges results in a remarkable effect. The neutral tonal color scheme draws attention to this ceiling’s interest.

3. Keep it clean and modern:

This sitting room featured on Jacques Grange's Instagram demonstrates how adding this architecture detail can support a minimalist aesthetic. In other words, not all tray ceilings make things fussy. The tray ceiling in this room underscores the warm, textured creams with tan and charcoal accents.

4. Play upon ornate antique treatments:

The magnificent Ven House in Somerset, England, designated a world heritage house, stays true to its roots with this tray ceiling. Flanked with gold leaf crown mouldings and anchored by classic bas relief certainly amps this room up to extraordinary stature. In conclusion, it proves classic design can endure the test of time.

Roxanne Robinson
Roxanne Robinson is an award-winning Paris-based American journalist covering luxury and fashion industries with over 25 years of experience. I spent over 18 years at WWD, covering sportswear, accessories and fine jewelry. My career witnessed the shift from print media to the digital age. I gained expert knowledge of the design world, wholesale and retail markets as well as the marketing that supports them. I met endless creatives and business people who create luxury from inception to POS with the consumer. My work has appeared in, BoF, The Hollywood Reporter,, The Jewelry Journal as well in-house publications and websites at Bally, Pomellato, Au Depart and among others.
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