A Gallery of Coffered Ceilings

Examples of Architectural Coffering

Empty room with wood paneled walls and coffered ceiling. View of family room with old fireplace with stone trim.
Coffered Ceiling. irina88w/Getty Images

The coffered ceiling is a well-known architectural detail that has been used since ancient times. From the interior indentations on the Roman Pantheon to midcentury modern residences, this decoration has been a popular addition to many domes and ceilings throughout history. These photos explore the numerous  ways this architectural feature has been used over time.

Grand American Homes

The ornate ceiling of the Assembly Room is viewed on a Great Room Tour at Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle Ceiling Designed by Julia Morgan. George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)

The word coffer is derived from a Latin word meaning "basket" or "hollowed container." One can imagine designers of the Renaissance era putting together theoretical treasure chests to create a new type of ceiling pattern. The architects of America's grand mansions carried on the tradition.

America's early architects were trained in European aesthetics and Julia Morgan, the first woman to graduate from Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was no exception. The woman who designed Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California had a wealthy client (William Randolph Hearst), so she could pull out all the stops, Built in the first half of the 20th century, the Hearst Castle complex of buildings is a museum to American opulence.

So, too, is Mar-a-Lago, built in the 1920s for breakfast cereal baroness Marjorie Merriweather Post. The interior of the Florida mansion was lavishly designed by architect Joseph Urban, known for creating grandiose stage sets for the theatre. Coffered ceilings are generally eye-catching in America's grand homes, but the living room of Mar-a-Lago is so texturally rich with gold that the ceiling is almost an afterthought.

Coffered Barrel Vaults

The 80 feet, barrel vaulted ceiling is coffered
Basilica Of Our Lady Of Sorrows, Chicago, Illinois. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images (cropped)

The 80 foot high barrel vaulted ceiling of the 1902 Our Lady Of Sorrows in Chicago, Illinois is riddled with coffers, which makes the interior or this basilica rich in height and depth. The Italian Renaissance Revival style is a design imitated by architects the world over to create the impression of majestic grandeur.

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

The coffered barrel vault ceiling is an enduring style, as can be seen in the lobby shopping area at Sea Fort Square in Tokyo, Japan. The 1992 design succeeds in the same open elegance but with more modern design.

The Coffered Ceiling Look and Function

choir members in large hall with coffered ceiling
Shadyside Presbyterian Parish Hall. Tim Engleman via Flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) cropped

Even 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.

Telling Stories in Coffers

detail of large coffers, paitings, in small room
Plafond à Caissons de la Maison Seilhan. Pistolero31 via flickr.com, Attribution Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

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.

The Renaissance was a time for story-telling, and artists and architects combined their talents to create some of the most enduring interiors still admired today. In Florence, Italy, the 15th century Salone dei Cinquecento or Hall of the 500 at the Palazzo Vecchio is well-known for its mural battle scenes painted by Michelango and da Vinci, but the ceiling panels painted by Giorgio Vasari remain an art gallery on a different plane. Deeply framed to support the roof and coffers, Vasari's team tell the fantastical stories of Cosimo I, the banking patron from the House of Medici.

Triangular Coffers

interior of octagonal wooden roof
Coffers Bracing Roof. AContadini/Getty Images

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, 20th 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.

Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain

rectangular coffers in ceiling above escalators
Puerta de Sol Subway Station, Madrid, Spain. Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images (cropped)

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

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 design these spaces to be structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing, and acoustically controlled.

Sound design companies such as Acoustic Sciences Corp. can create residential 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."

Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center

detail of very deep, rectangular, concrete ceiling coffers
Yale University Art Gallery. Timothy Brown via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

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.

A coffer is sometimes called a lacuna, for the empty or hollow space being presented. The coffered ceiling has been a versatile design throughout architectural history — from ancient to modern times — perhaps because lacunaria is a wonderful example of geometry and architecture.

Coffers in Domes

view looking up into coffered dome with many opening beneath and top of a statue at ground level
Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C. Allan Baxter/Getty Images (cropped)

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a good example of a coffered dome interior from modern times.The five rows of 24 coffers within the limestone dome of the 1943 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. Today's coffers are a more decorative expression of Western architectural traditions.

On your next trip to Washington, D.C., don't forget to look up inside the public architecture of our nation's capital.

The Other Side of a Coffer

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Adam Taylor holds open one of the octogon coffer windows in the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol dome
The Other Side of a U.S. Capitol Coffer. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The U.S. Capitol Rotunda is another good example of this architectural form open to the public for inspection. What most visitors don't see, however, is the intricate cast iron workings behind the dome coffers.

 

coffered drop ceiling on outer edge of mid-century modern living room exterior wall
Sunnylands Estate, Rancho Mirage, California. Ned Redway/The 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.

Coffered ceilings should not be confused with decorative lattice work or even the popular tray ceilings found in many large suburban homes. A tray ceiling is often a feature that enlarges a small kitchen or dining room without manipulating the footprint of the room. A tray ceiling has one, large sunken area in the ceiling, like one coffer, or an inverted tray.

Another trick for manipulating the illusion of space was employed by none other than Michelangelo. 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 the most famous ceiling of all time, the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome.

Photo Credits

  • Coffers of the Pantheon Dome, Dennis Marsico/Getty Images
  • Mar-a-Lago Living Room, Davidoff Studios/Getty Images (cropped)
  • El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba, Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)
  • Sea Fort Square, Tokyo, Japan, Takahiro Yanai/Getty Images (cropped)
  • Chapel of the Maison Seilhan, Peter Potrowl via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) cropped
  • Salone dei Cinquecento, naes/Getty Images (cropped)
  • D.C. Metro Subway Station, Philippe Marion/Getty Images (cropped)
  • United States Capitol Rotunda, Uyen Le/Getty Images
  • Tray Ceiling, irina88w/Getty Images
  • Detail of Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Fotopress/Getty Images