Coffered Ceilings: Inside Architecture

Examples of Architectural Coffering

The coffered ceiling is a well-known architectural detail that has been used since ancient times. As we see here, many of today's popular residential interior ceilings have historic roots in yesterday's architecture.

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Coffered ceiling of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC
Coffered ceiling of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC. Jefferson Memorial Coffered Dome ©Allan Baxter, Getty Images

The five rows of 24 coffers within the limestone dome of the 1943 Jefferson Memorial are modeled after the five rows of 28 coffers found in the Roman Pantheon built around 125 A.D. In ancient times coffers were used to lighten the load of a dome roof, decoratively hide exposed structural beams and defects, and/or create the illusion of dome height.

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The Coffered Ceiling Look and Function

Coffered ceiling in Parish Hall, a room that once served as a basketball court
Coffered ceiling in Parish Hall lends a comfortable welcome to a room that once served as a basketball court. Shadyside Presbyterian, Pittsburgh ©Tim Engleman, shadysidelantern on flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

In more modern times, coffered ceilings are used to give an elegant, manor-house-look to a room. The newly installed coffered ceiling seen here has transformed a basketball court into a comfortable Parish Hall for this Pennsylvania church.

Sound design companies such as Acoustic Sciences Corp. create coffers with "a grid of acoustic beams that are glued onto the surface of a ceiling." Horizontal and vertical sound flow can be controlled or at least manipulated by the "depth of the acoustic beam and size of the grid."

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Salón de Pasos Perdidos, El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba

Coffered ceiling of the Hall of Lost Steps, Havana, Cuba capitol building, in the Renaissance style, 400 feet long and 45 feet tall
Salón de Pasos Perdidos, Hall of Lost Steps, El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Coffered ceilings are often used to visually connect architectural spans, such as in corridors, hallways, or long gallery rooms of stately mansions. Seen here is the Renaissance style Hall of Lost Steps (Salón de Pasos Perdidos) connecting chambers within the 1929 Cuban Capitol.

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Telling Stories in Coffers

Painted coffers tell the story of the life of St. Dominic in France
Coffered ceiling of the 17th century tells the life of St Dominic, Plafond à caissons de la maison Seilhan, Rangueil, Toulouse, Midi-Pyrenees, France. Life of St. Dominic ©Pistolero31 at flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Coffers are conveniently framed panels on which to paint, just as art or comic strips are contained within frames. In the 17th century, friar Balthazar-Thomas Moncornet used this plafond à caissons to depict the life of Saint Dominic. Fifteen wooden caissons of a chapel ceiling near the Toulouse, France depict fifteen scenes, telling the story of the 13th century founder of the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans.

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Sistine Chapel Trompe L'oeil

Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo
Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel detail ©2005 Getty Images, Fotopress/Getty Images

Trompe L'oeil is a painting technique that tricks the eye into believing a certain reality. Michelangelo used his artistic skills to paint many of the three-dimensional moldings and crossbeams, creating the illusion of coffers in a ceiling.

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Triangular Coffers

Photo of coffers created by triangular beaming
Coffers created by triangular beaming. Triangular Coffers ©Brock Builders, General Contractor, Asheville, NC, CC BY 2.0

Coffers are indentations as a result of any geometric form. Square and rectangular coffers may remind us of Western or European architecture from Greek and Roman traditions. However, twentieth century modern architectural designs often embrace split quadrilaterals or a combination of polygons, including triangular coffers. When cost is no object, the imagination of the architect is the only limit to ceiling design.

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Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain

Photo of coffered ceiling at Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain
Coffered ceiling, Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain. Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain © Hisham Ibrahim, gettyimages

Geometrically designed ceilings are very popular in modern underground train stations, such as the Puerta de Sol in Madrid, Spain.

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St. Pancras Concourse at King's Cross Station, London

Modern coffered ceiling at the new Kings Cross Station and St Pancras concourse in London
Modern coffered ceiling at the new Kings Cross Station and St Pancras concourse in London. Kings Cross and St Pancras Station ©Alan Hewitt, gettyimages

London officials transformed its transit system in time to get people to Top Olympic Venues of 2012. The architect of the redesign of the King's Cross Station used decorative modern coffering to bridge the old and new of London. The concourse ceiling at St. Pancras is the "biggest single span structure of any station structure in Europe," claims architect John McAslan. "I mean it's a huge thing—140 meters long, 85 meters wide....So, it's a very, very big space and was prefabricated offsite and needed very importantly to be constructed in a way that didn't touch the historic fabric, so it was pretty complicated."

Source: Video, The Telegraph, March 14, 2012 [accessed March 6, 2013]

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Metro Subway, Washington, D.C.

Interior coffered ceiling of the metro subway in Washington, D.C.
Interior coffered ceiling of the metro subway in Washington, D.C. Washington, DC Metro ©O Palsson on flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

The word coffer is derived from an ancient word meaning "basket" or "hollowed container." The geometric design of these hollows is used to please the eye's want for symmetry and order, especially in open, hectic environments like underground commuter train stations. The architect and structural engineer designed this roof and ceiling to be structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing, and acoustically controlled.

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Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center

Coffered ceiling of Lois Kahn art gallery at Yale University
Coffered ceiling of Lois Kahn art gallery at Yale University. Yale Art Gallery, ©cjreddaway at flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Architect Louis I. Kahn built a modern art museum for Yale University in 1953. Much of the design, including the iconic tetrahedronical ceiling, was influenced by the geometric vision of architect Anne Tyng.

The coffered ceiling has been a versatile design throughout architectural history. Perhaps its popularity is because lacunaria is a wonderful example of geometry and architecture.

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Mid-century modern living area with large windows bringing the sunny outdoors inside.
Interior living area of the original house at Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage. Living Room at Sunnylands, press photo, Graydon Wood ©Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

Coffering can be found in many modern buildings. Southern California architect A. Quincy Jones was known for using coffered ceilings in his midcentury desert modern house designs. The ceiling of the living room at Sunnylands, a 1966 estate in Rancho Mirage, seems to extend through the glass wall, connecting the interior with the outside landscape. The coffering also visually frames the height of the ceiling's center area. Jones' design shows the limitless possibilities of the coffered ceiling.