Painting interior architecture details -- from rustic ceiling beams
Painting interior architecture details — from rustic ceiling beams to classic wainscoting — can be difficult without training or understanding of the feature itself. Follow below for our tips and tricks!

Interior architecture details featured in classic or traditional homes can be difficult to decorate around — let alone to paint or wallpaper. Dados, moldings, tray ceilings, pitched ceilings, arches, window frames, beams and niches are all elements that require a bit more thought — and often a few more tools — to paint. Furthermore, designers and homeowners are frequently divided on whether these features should be painted in contrasting colors, enhanced with glossy coatings, left bare or painted to match surrounding walls. For those facing complex features, follow below for ten easy-to-follow tips for painting interior architecture details.

Defining Common Interior Architecture Details

Wall Molding, Coving and Paneling

wall moldings are wainscoting, dados, chair railings and picture railings.
Wall moldings include the typical and commonly known “crown molding” but also include wainscoting, dados, chair railings and picture railings.

Though the terms wainscoting, railing and dadoes are frequently used interchangeably to refer to a banner of molding along the top or bottom portion of a wall, the three are not the same. The three differ primarily in height — meaning that while they all encircle an entire room, they are set apart by varying distances from the ceiling. Construction material and carving can also divide the three. 

Dados Draw Inspiration from Classical Architecture

The dado — for instance — is one of many interior architecture details. It represents a horizontal molding that runs only along the bottom of a wall. Dados typically span between one third of the wall’s height. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that dadoes once represented “the plain portion between the base and cornice of the pedestal of a column.” However, between the 16th and 18th century, dadoes featured heavily in residential buildings as interior decorative elements. Dados are often topped by a type of crown molding called a dado rail and joined with the floor by a skirting board. 

Wainscoting Was Invented by Practical 14th Century Dutchmen

In his article “All About Wainscoting” for This Old House, Josh Garskof explains how wainscoting differs from chair railing, picture railing and dadoes. Garskof writes that wainscoting is Dutch 14th century interior architecture tradition. It usually features “a combination of decorative boards or panels and moldings that extend partway up a wall’s face.” Though the 16th and 17th century dadoes of Europe and Colonial America were purely decorative, the Dutch used wainscoting “to shield the bottom half of plaster walls from such hazards as jostled chairs, spurs on riding boots, perhaps even carelessly swung scabbards.” Wainscoting is traditionally fashioned from solid wood, but modern iterations may be made from “plywood, plastic, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF).”

Chair Railing and Picture Railing Served Historic Purposes

Perhaps the hardest to draw a line between, chair railing and picture railing are frequently confused with one another. Both are interior architecture details found along walls. Jennifer Hunter offers an explanation of the chair rail in her article “The Chair Rail: What It Is and How To Make the Most of It” for Apartment Therapy. She writes that chair railing is a “mid-wall molding [that] actually has less to do with chairs and more to do with proportion and scale.” Chair railings were once affixed to dining and sitting room walls to prevent chairs from scraping against wallpaper and paint. As such, chair railings typically reached as high on the wall as a chair’s back might reach if slammed against it. Today, however, chair rails serve solely as a decorative interior architecture element. Given their purely aesthetic function, the height of chair rails is now determined based on the size, shape and height of the room in question. Hunter explains that “the wall’s dimensions are what should guide the placement of the molding,” though most designers simply “estimate that the rail should hit about 1/3 up the wall.”

Understanding the Difference

Barbara Peck instructs how to tell the difference between chair and picture railing in her article “Remodeling 101: A Quick Guide to Chair Rails, Picture Rails, and Wainscoting” for Remodelista. Peck writes that unlike chair railing, dadoes and wainscoting, picture rails adorn the top of walls rather than the bottom. She notes that “like chair rails, these were once installed for functional purposes,” but the function was to avoid smashing a hole in the wall when hanging a framed painting. Instead, homeowners could simply “hang [the picture] on a wire or cord attached to the picture rail, and swap it out later without leaving any holes in the plaster.” Picture rails are typically mounted about “nine inches below the ceiling” and are uncommon in most homes across the US — unless a period or historic house. 

Moldings Trace Existing Interior Architecture

Sometimes formed from plaster, other times from wood, metal or another composite material, moldings trace existing interior architecture elements. These elements may be the frame of a window or door, the junction between wall and ceiling, the connection between floor and wall or the surrounding of a staircase, pillar or column. There are many common types of molding, but each can usually be divided into one of three categories: tracing an entryway, following the ceiling or lining the wall-floor connection. Those found along the top of a wall include the picture rail — mentioned above –, crown molding dentil, molding, cove molding and others. Those tracing the floor are typically called baseboard or skirt molding and those around a window or door are referred to as casing molding.

Ceiling Designs

Tray and Coffered Ceilings

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Kelsey Mulvey explains the difference between tray and coffered ceilings in her article “Everything You Need to Know About Tray Ceilings” for Elle Decor. She writes that while tray and coffered ceilings may look somewhat similar, they serve different purposes. For instance, coffered ceilings “have multiple recessed sections [while] a tray ceiling is defined as having one, larger inverted area.” Coffered ceilings are chosen by architects and designers to “improve a room’s acoustics” while tray ceilings serve as “a clever way to mask the addition of a vent system in older homes.” Today, both tray and coffered ceilings may be found in new builds. Coffered ceilings — with their decorative crown molding — are fairly popular in coastal designs while shallow tray ceilings — augmented with wood paneling, wallpaper or glossy paint — might be found more inland. 

Other Common Ceiling Designs

Additional ceiling designs commonly found in residential architecture include vaulted and cathedral ceilings — both of which are typically peaked rather than flat at the top. Barrel and domed ceilings are somewhat similar in that the ceiling is vaulted but curves along the top rather than forming a peak. Shed ceilings — those which turn downwards on one side of the room and tilt upwards on the other — form a slope across the space. Shed ceilings are commonly augmented with clerestory windows along the top several feet of the taller wall. Cove ceilings are best described as a hybrid between a tray ceiling and a cathedral ceiling. They somewhat resemble the bottom of a boat if it were overturned. Beamed ceilings are the most self-explanatory, featuring either structural or functional lateral wooden beams. 

10 Tips for Painting Interior Architecture Details

#1 Paint Molding in Small Rooms the Same Color as the Wall

While small spaces certainly should not be short on personality, excitement or bold color, they can become cramped when too many details occupy an area short on square footage. For rooms with shallow ceilings and close walls, one might follow advice from Farrow & Ball’s blog post entitled “Considering Architectural Features.” The post notes that “painting the molding and ceiling the same color [will give] the impression of a slightly lower ceiling.” However, “painting molding and walls in the same color…has the opposite effect, making the walls appear taller” and the room more spacious.

#2 But Paint Chair Railings a Contrasting Color

In her article “How to paint a dado rail or chair rail in your home” for Private Property, Anne Roselt describes how to make the most of chair railings, dadoes and wainscoting — even small or short rooms. To make a small space feel more expansive or a large space seem more dramatic, Roselt recommends painting “the area below the dado rail” or the top of the chair rail in a darker shade to “ground the wall.” Accent this darker color with a “lighter color above the rail [to] create a feeling of more space.” Choosing colors in the same color family creates a highly sophisticated, almost monochromatic look while also establishing dimension. 

#3 Paint the Space Above a Picture Railing the Same Color as Overhead to Create a Faux Tray Ceiling

For homes with standard flat ceilings whose homeowners would prefer a more unique look, we recommend painting the space above a picture railing the same color as overhead. Because picture railings are typically set between nine inches and a foot below the junction of wall and ceiling, they create a thin strip of empty space. Painting this strip the same color as the ceiling creates a trendy, faux tray ceiling without the expense or effort of creating a true tray ceiling.

#4 Avoid Over-Decorating Niches

Niches typically represent small indented areas within a wall, appearing almost like an uncarved window. Because they are miniature rather than full-scale interior architecture elements like recessed walls or alcoves, niches work best when blended into the rest of the design scheme. Niches provide their own focal point without the addition of a pop of color or a dramatic highlight. As such, try to paint niches in your home the same color as surrounding walls. Shadows created by the slight indent will create a point of visual interest without overpowering the space. 

#5 But Go to Town on Recessed Walls for a Stunning Interior Design

Contrary to what one might think, alcoves and recessed walls can handle more color and drama than smaller features like niches. As such, consider turning a recessed wall into its own feature wall with a fun wallpaper print or a bold paint color. Accent the unusual space with larger pieces of color-blocked furniture — e.g. a bed, pair of armchairs or wide couch — to avoid creating an area that feels too busy or fussy. 

#6 Consider the Home’s History When Painting Wooden Beams

Whether your home features a farmhouse-inspired interior or one recalling the Victorian period, recalling the home’s history when painting original features is important to creating a cohesive, coordinated look. This is particularly true of ceiling beams. If the home’s wooden ceiling beams are original to an older house — particularly one dating to periods like the Arts and Crafts period of the early 20th and late 19th century — leaving them natural is most appropriate. Victorian, Beaux Arts or Colonial homes — many of which were louder, more colorful and more ornate than the unobtrusive styles of the mid-century and Arts and Crafts periods — might be served by painted beams. 

#7 Swap Standard White with Darker Tones for Coffered Ceilings

The majority of coffered ceilings gracing feeds across Instagram and boards on Pinterest are washed white across the entire feature. While this is certainly a safe choice befitting rooms with lower ceilings, it might feel a bit tired. In her article “A Coffered Ceiling Could Make Your Room Feel So Much Bigger” for House Beautiful, Stefanie Waldek recommends taking risks when painting your coffered ceiling. She notes that because “there’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into creating these perfectly segmented details,” homeowners and decorators alike should take more care when painting coffered ceilings. Quoting New York interior designer Meagan Camp, Waldek proposes “‘painting the coffered ceiling a complimentary color to the room, as it doesn’t necessarily need to be painted ‘ceiling white.’” In fact, dark tones like black, burgundy and emerald green can be stunning. Camp notes that “‘dramatic paint color[s] further enhance the elegant detailing’” of coffered ceilings.

#8 Match the Undertones of Trim to Wall Colors

Though many choose to do so in order to create a homogenous, modern look, painting trim — crown and baseboard molding — the same color as surrounding walls is not necessary. However, matching the undertones of trim to wall colors is important to creating a sensical, aesthetically pleasing interior. For example, choosing a white trim with a cool undertone in a room with yellow walls or picking a warm-toned trim for a dove gray room can muddy both colors and make the space feel inconsistent and — worse yet — dirty. Jessica Bennet offers a final recommendation for painting trim throughout one’s home in her article “How to Choose Trim Colors That Flawlessly Coordinate with Your Walls” for Better Homes & Gardens. She recommends that homeowners “plan to paint all the trim throughout the main areas of the house the same color to create a unified effect from room to room.” Bedrooms and bathrooms can be a bit more playful, however.

#9 Keep the Colors Consistent With Shed Ceilings for a Cohesive Design

Shed ceilings are often augmented by clerestory windows and blend seamlessly with the surrounding walls. With their somewhat sharp slope already adding drama to a space, shed ceilings rarely feature molding or railing of any kind. Because this sharp incline is dramatic in and of itself due to its asymmetrical design, adding further elements can make the space seem messy and disjointed. To keep spaces with shed ceilings feeling fresh and clean, paint the surrounding walls the same color as the ceiling.

#10 Have Fun Painting Your Home’s Interior Architecture

Though there are “right” and “wrong” ways to paint a room and its interior architecture details — prescribed by designers and decorators — homeowners should always feel free to play with the space. However, to maintain some consistency and keep your vision on track, consider reaching out to a specialist for a consultation.

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