Plaster is a useful material for creating a range of reliefs, patterns and designs along ceilings, providing a decorative element that draws the eye up. Decorative plaster ceilings range from understated to opulent. Drawing on a long tradition of plaster decoration spanning several centuries, modern plaster ceilings tend to give the room a historical look and play up antique furniture and old-fashioned designs. In contemporary homes, this "pre-war" flavour can provide pleasing contrast to sleek furnishings.
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Right in the centre of a room's ceiling, where a chandelier would traditionally hang, a common practice is to install a plaster medallion. The medallion can range from a simple relief of a ring or a set of concentric rings to a florid, wreathlike sculpture. Among the traditional images used for the medallion, acanthus or anthemia leaves are highly traditional as are motifs using banners or ribbonlike designs. Generally, the plaster used for a medallion would be produced and designed off-site, within a plaster-worker's shop, and later installed in the home. In older homes, many plaster medallions can be carefully restored as part of a historically-sensitive renovation. When working on a plaster medallion, you'll have to take into consideration the specific type of plaster used, whether lime or gypsum. For more modern installations, you might even find plaster compounds with strands of fibreglass to lend support.
One of the principal decorative uses of plaster on ceilings is to build up a frame around the perimeter of the ceiling. Not to be confused with crown moulding, a cornice is generally more built up and ornate in design, extending further outward than crown moulding, sometimes edging well up along the ceiling surface. By contrast, crown moulding is usually affixed to the wall along its highest point. Usually, the plaster design of a cornice will match that of the room's medallion. In homes with extensive plaster ceiling designs, the front rooms or the rooms of the lower story, whichever are used for entertaining, usually have the most ornate cornices. By contrast, the private rooms may have a simple border.
Coffering refers to the installation of a lattice structure across the whole of a room's ceiling. A coffered ceiling usually combines plaster with supports made from another material, potentially wood. Whatever the precise composition of the coffering structure, usually the entire latticework is completed in the plaster-worker's workshop, only to be installed afterwards using a system of wires to hoist and set it into place. Coffering is often used in large symphony halls, stations and other large gathering places due to its outstanding acoustical properties. For example, the U.S. Capitol building and Union Station in Washington, D.C. and Symphony Hall in Boston all use coffering on their ceilings.
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