All About the Coffered Ceiling

The Pattern of Ceilings in Architecture

light-colored ornate ceiling, one color, deep indentations, designs within the indentations
Coffered Ceiling at Versaille in France.

Todd Gipstein/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

A coffered ceiling is a pattern of indentations or recesses in an overhead surface. In architecture, a "coffer" is a sunken panel in a ceiling, including the interior surfaces of domes and vaults. If a surface is "coffered," it is not smooth. The architectural detail has been popular since Renaissance architects imitated Classical Roman techniques. Modernist architects often play with the depth and shape of the coffer.

Key Takeaways: Coffered Ceilings

  • A coffered ceiling is a series of indentations or hollows on the surface of a ceiling.
  • Coffered ceilings decoratively hide ceiling imperfections and create the illusion of height. Historically, the design is considered dignified and formal.
  • Simple coffered ceilings are created by crisscrossing beams that create geometric patterns, usually squares or rectangles.

The word "coffer" comes from the ancient Greek word kophinos, which means "basket." The Latin word for basket, cophinus, was adopted by the old French to mean various types of hollowed containers. The words "coffer," a chest or strongbox to hold money, and "coffin," a box for the dead, are both French derivations. The Latin word capsa, meaning "box," evolved into the words "caisson" (an ammunition chest) and "casket" (same as coffin). Caisson ceiling is another term used to describe this type of ceiling hollow.

The Chinese name for this type of ceiling, zaojing, means a well for plants that grow in water. The Latin word lacus, meaning lake or basin of water, is also used for this type of sunken panel (lacunar) ceiling.

Coffers have been used in ceilings for centuries. Sometimes they were used to disguise the architectural engineering, where one beam or brace would be structurally necessary but others were built neaby for visual symmetry and to hide the necessary beam. Although hollows are sometimes used for structural weight distribution, coffers have always been used decoratively. Historically, a coffered ceiling can make a room look larger and more regal, as it does in the Palace of Versaille.

Coffered ceilings are sometimes called caisson ceilings, plafond à caissons, lacunaria, cross-beamed ceilings, and zaojing. Sometimes the English refer to these ceilings as "coffer ceilings" but never cougher ceilings. Coffered ceilings are found throughout architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the mid-century modern residence called Sunnylands at Rancho Mirage, California. The architect of Sunnylands used coffers inside and outside, to visually connect interior spaces with the outdoors.

exterior coffered ceiling corner of concrete
Exterior Detail at Sunnylands. The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

Coffers are not to be confused with latticework, a particularly important element in Islamic architecture. Like coffers, lattice is created with crisscrossed building materials, often pieces of wood, but lattice is arranged in decorative patterns to allow air through screens and windows, as in mashrabiya and jali.

Coffered ceilings also should not be confused with 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.

Creating Coffers

Coffers are the sunken geometric areas in a ceiling, but most ceilings begin as a flat surface. Where do the coffers come from? Coffers can be created in at least two ways: (1) place a roof beam or crossbeam framework that naturally creates a space between the beams — the space appears sunken because the beams protrude; or (2) remove ceiling material, as you would carving a hole, or press into a flat surface to create an indentation, as you might create a sunken imprint into uncured concrete.

Choosing the first method will take away ceiling height. Choosing the second method gains extra space for the room's overall volume. Most coffered ceilings are created using the first method carried out in different ways.

Unfinished cross and beam ceiling creating coffers
Unfinished Coffered Ceiling. Brian Moloney The Finishing Company Richmond via, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

Creating the design framework can be handcrafted by a carpenter like Brian Moloney, owner of The Finishing Company in the Richmond, Virginia area. Maloney is a finish carpenter, but that doesn't mean he comes from Finland. In fact, he comes from Ireland. "Finishing" is just one of the many carpentry skills of a master carpenter.

Coffered ceiling, squared indentations made from white-colored wood protrusions, ceiling ready for light fixture
Coffered Ceiling Built by Brian Moloney, Finish Carpenter from Ireland. Brian Moloney The Finishing Company Richmond via, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) cropped

An easier drop ceiling method is often used by commercial developers, manufacturers, and do-it-yourselfers (DIYs). Companies such as Classic Coffers can be hired to install a grid (sometimes beneath a fixed ceiling), then the panel coffers are placed within the grid. These aren't the tacky looking drop ceilings of your grandmother's basement. A coffered drop ceiling can be created to look exactly like the wood finishing of a master carpenter. Only Brian Moloney could tell the difference.

The DIY may buy a box of polystyrene foam tiles — faux tin like tiles — that purportedly can be "installed right over Pop Corn ceiling." It's your choice.

A less well-known method of creating coffers is offered by none other than Michelangelo. The Renaissance master manipulated the illusion of space with trompe l'oeil, 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. Which is wood and which is paint?

ceiling frescoes depict not only the genesis of man but also the faux framing of ceiling beams and coffers
Detail of Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo. Fotopress/Getty Images (cropped)

Photo Credit

  • Tray Ceiling, irina88w/Getty Images
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "All About the Coffered Ceiling." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 28). All About the Coffered Ceiling. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "All About the Coffered Ceiling." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).