Overcoming the Challenges of High Ceilings
Copyright: Sharon McCormick. Photo by Olson Photographic, LLC.

High ceilings add drama, elegance and opulence that few other architectural features can match. But while the beauty of a two-story, vaulted or coffered ceiling is unquestionable, creating a space beneath them that is comfortable and welcoming can be a challenge. When managed with skillful decorating and proper planning, however, a room with a soaring ceiling can be a joy to look at and live in.

Color and Texture
While ceilings are traditionally left white, using a different color on a high ceiling can make a huge difference in the feel of your room.

"Painting high ceilings white makes the room feel like you’re entering an auditorium, which lacks cohesiveness and feels uninviting," says Los Angeles-based interior designer Justine Blanda-Wengrod. "Warm, rich, deeper colors will bring the ceiling down visually and create a welcoming cheerfulness to guests."

The importance of good color choices for all the surfaces in your room can’t be overstated, adds designer Sharon McCormick, national spokesperson for the American Society of Interior Designers and Principal of Sharon McCormick Designs. She recommends painting the ceiling the same color as the walls to create a calm, inviting space. "This takes the emphasis away from the volume of the space and makes the room feel like a cohesive whole," she says.

Consider using other wall elements to accentuate this architectural detail and create more intimacy in the room. "Using texture, pattern or color on the ceiling plane is a great way to add to your space," says Minneapolis designer Lisa Peck of Pisa Designs. It will bring the ceiling down to a more human scale visually."

Windows and Wall Coverings
If your high ceiling is accompanied by a wall with windows, choosing the right coverings and using them in the most attractive way is essential. Designer Bernadette Peters of Newark, N.J.–based Style For Life Interiors says window coverings in high-ceiling rooms serve two purposes. "Floor to close to ceiling drapery panels will soften and warm the feel of the space, and sound will be absorbed by the long panels," she says.

Even if your windows don’t go all the way to the ceiling, hanging your draperies high is a good design decision. "In such an expansive space, the room will look and feel more balanced," says Blanda-Wengrod.

Overcoming the Challenges of High Ceilings
Copyright: Pisa Design, Inc. Photo credit: Mark Kawell

Window coverings aren’t the only wall décor to consider in rooms with high ceilings, however. Blanda-Wengrod says one of the most common mistakes homeowners make when decorating spaces with high ceilings is hanging artwork too high. "Limit the number of frames and hang them at eye level," she says. "Hanging a collection of several pieces of artwork that use the same style of frame creates unity and looks stylish on a blank wall."

McCormick agrees, adding that it’s important to remember scale when choosing the artwork, as well. "Fewer but larger pieces work better than many small pieces," she says. "Floor screens make great wall hangings on a tall wall."

Choosing the Right Furnishings and Arrangement
Another factor in creating a cohesive setting in a room with high ceilings is furnishings. "Think about the scale of the piece of furniture in relation to the scale of the space," says Peck. "Taller backs on furniture, more massive arms, legs and cushioning can help pieces look better in a space with higher ceilings."

Too-small pieces will be swallowed in a room with high ceilings, adds McCormick. "Pieces like low-slung chairs will look dwarfed by the height of the walls," she says.

Beside making the right choices in the pieces themselves, arranging them correctly can make all the difference in the sociability of your space. Peck says the ceiling itself can even be used to accentuate specific areas in a room. "Use a color, height or pattern change directly over the seating area to define the space below," she says.

In expansive rooms with high ceilings, Blanda-Wengrod says arranging the furniture into several smaller seating areas can help alleviate the sense of being in an auditorium-like setting. "Grouping furniture pieces together in different areas of the room will help create more intimate areas," she says.

Using the Floor to Your Advantage
While the ceiling may be the main attraction, don’t forget that the floor is an important design element in making the space seem warm and inviting.

Not only will a large area rug help blunt some of the cave-like acoustics of wood floors in high-ceiling rooms, it can also be an important design element. "A beautiful area rug that complements your color scheme can pull in the space and create a sense of coziness," says Blanda-Wengard.


Addressing Acoustic Challenges

While changes in lighting and décor are relatively simple fixes in any room, dealing with the acoustic challenges in a room with a very high ceiling can be a little trickier fix. 

Many homes with high or two-story ceilings also have hard surface floors like wood and tile, which exacerbates the feeling of being in an empty auditorium, says acoustics expert Leonard Hospidor. 

"The sound in a large room bounces just like it would in a small room, but the problem is that it’s coming from so far away, it’s so delayed that it starts interfering with the intelligibility of things," says Hospidor. "The problem is there’s sometimes a big tradeoff between aesthetics and functionality."

Here are a few ways to manage the sound issues without sacrificing design:

Rugs: Wood floors, tile floors and walls are all hard surfaces, and sound bounces off them without really being absorbed at all. While you don’t have to carpet the walls to have a conversation, throwing down some softer flooring is one way to blunt the echoing from a large room.

Plush furnishings: When you choose your furnishings, adding plush pieces will make your guests feel comfortable in more ways than one. Opting for a cloth sofa instead of leather, or covered arm chairs instead of wood, will help absorb some of the tones that cause conversation or television dialogue to be garbled.

Large drapes: Thick, heavy draperies will not only fit the scale and drama of a high-ceilinged room, they will also help buffer some of the acoustic problems that can occur. Skip the sheers and the silks and opt for what Hospidor calls “theater curtains:” plush, weighty fabrics like velvet or a thick cotton weave that absorb the desired frequencies.

Stealth soundproofing: One trick that Hospidor recommends that will fool the eye and the ear is hiding acoustic panels behind canvas art. By wrapping a printed canvas around sound-absorbing materials, you can have art on your wall you enjoy while still reducing a wall’s sound reflecting qualities.


Plants are also a great way to create a sense of life while adding a beautiful element of height and color into a space. Blanda-Wengard recommends adding tall trees like Kentia palms in beautiful decorative pots. "It will highlight the corners of the room, which will enhance your furniture," she says.

Plants can also do double duty by becoming a decorative light sources, says Brooke Ziccardi, principal of Ziccardi Designs in Costa Mesa, Calif. Ziccardi says that adding uplights into plants emphasizes their effect. "It creates a more intimate space by bringing the eye level down," she says. "Plants can create interesting shadow and light patterns that bring attention to the walls and minimize the height of the ceiling."

Lighting It Right
Lighting a room with a high ceiling can be one of the most challenging aspects of designing the room. If you can be involved in lighting design when your home is being built, it’s never too early to consider your illumination plan, says Blanda-Wengard. She recommends homeowners involved in the construction phase visualize where their furniture and other items will be so they can work with an electrician to rough out the best wiring setup for lighting the room.

"Ask the electrician to make sure you have enough light in the room—general lighting, task and accent lighting—and while you’re at it, remind him to put them all on dimmers," she says.

When you’re working on your lighting plan, however, remember that the aesthetics of the fixtures themselves should be a consideration. "When you’re in these tall rooms, you certainly don’t want to use an 8-inch wall sconce or regular small table lamp," says Jeff Dross, senior product manager and trends analyst for Kichler Lighting. He says taller table lamps fill more vertical space and give more interest to the room and that 24 to26- inch wall sconces can make a dramatic effect on the feel of a space. "Those taller wall sconces will give more interest on the wall, break it up a bit and, if you hang a series of them together, it can almost create the illusion of a ceiling at the top of the light line," he says. "It makes the space feel a little cozier and more inviting."

Keeping It Cool (Or Warm)
Everyone knows hot air rises and cool air sinks, but that doesn’t mean the only way to manage temperature in these rooms is by hanging a ceiling fan on a long conduit and keeping it running.

"Proper ventilation is vital in every room, but there are more ways to get there than ceiling fans," says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt. "Sometimes they’re just not an appropriate design choice at all."

Galt says choosing draperies with a high insulation value makes it easier to manage the cooling for the whole house by keeping the high-ceilinged room from drawing heat in. "Lined and interlined drapery in a heavy fabric will do much more than mere shutters or blinds," she says.

Other options for high windows that are tough to manage thermally include window films that are available in a variety of styles and purposes, including eliminating glare and reducing solar heat gain.

Besides window coverings, Galt says adding plush fabrics to any surface will help homeowners manage the temperature in their high-ceilinged rooms. "All manner of soft goods, including thick-pile Persian rugs or hand-knotted Tibetans, dense upholstery and warmer colors will all act to reduce heat loss and maintain warmth," Galt says. "In the summer months, shifting to lighter pieces including slipcovers in a lightweight linen, silk or cotton can make the space feel and look cooler."

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac