What It’s Made of: Great Commercial Ceiling Finishes


Tuesday we talked about how much we like elevated ceilings in our residential projects, and push for added height everywhere we can.  In our commercial work, a high ceiling is usually a given but we have strong feelings about how that area should be treated.  Today we showcase some of our favorite ceiling finishes and why they work.

Conventional retail spaces when leased, tend either toward the cavernous and cold, exposed structure of a big box store or the lowering expanse of (shudder) drop in acoustical tile interrupted with 2’x4′ fluorescent lights and random air returns slots.  We would rather see ANYTHING on the ceiling than an acoustical grid and make it our mission to bust them out of existing spaces whenever possible!

Let It All Hang out

We are never afraid to expose the working parts of a building when necessary.  Brew cafe in Traverse City is a perfect example of the older buildings (which we often see, both in Chicago and elsewhere) spaces have both high ceilings and no original space designated for mechanical systems.  

Ductwork, alone, isn’t particularly beautiful, but it is part of the reality of a building and hiding it only requires reducing the height of the entire space.  It would have been a tragedy to cover up this original pressed tin ceiling, just to put in can lights and hid the air system.  We opted to keep both the height and the material of the pressed tin, and run any necessary lights and ducts below it.   We’ll be doing the same for our upcoming Uptown Family Vision project in Park Ridge.  Stay tuned!


Even when the ceiling surface itself isn’t beautiful, like the an original pressed tin ceiling, exposing the underside of the floor structure above can be beautiful and interesting when its visually accessible.  That’s the case in our space at Moss HQ, where the underside of the ceiling structure also supports a crane system (not used anymore) that could be operated to move heavy objects around the building.  It shows the history of the building and, even though its a little beat up, we would shudder to cover it.

moss HQ

At 1325 Wilson, for Flats, Chicago, we stripped away false ceilings to show off the irregular concrete underside of the floors above.  Exposing piping, HVAC ductowork, sprinklers, and lights gives insight into the way a building works.   We minimized visual clutter by covering it all with a uniform coat of white paint (maximizing natural light effect at the same time).  This wouldn’t be appropriate in every situation but it can be a great solution especially when the goal is a high/low effect that brings focus away from the building shell and onto the objects within it.

Flats Wilson

If you cover it, Cover it with something Beautiful

Of course, we aren’t opposed to the idea of creating a non-structural ceiling element for visual effect but it needs to have some serious visual impact.  A great example of that is the Bar Pastoral restaurant where the custom curved ceiling both elevates a small space and draws all the elements together.  The suggestion of an old-world cheese cave is produced by the barrel vaulted ceiling.  The artisanal quality of the food on offer is echoed in the hand crafted plaster surface crafted by Anna Wolfson – there were no machined surfaces featured in this project!

bar pastoral

Hybrid Vigor in Ceiling Finishes

At 2 Sparrows Restaurant we had our cake, and ate it, too, by creating a higher ceilinged area with exposed HVAC and lights in the brighter front seating area and contrasting that with a lower and darker banquette seating space with a wood clad ceiling that wraps to the back wall.  The effect draws that dining area together and directs the energy back toward the bright store front.  Having a variety of ceiling treatments (and heights) keeps the restaurant from feeling too cavernous and gives plenty of visual interest.

what is it made of

As you go about your day, note the ceiling heights and materials around you.  How do they make you feel?  Once you start looking you won’t be able to stop.