This article is part of our Design Specials section on new interpretations of ancient design styles.
If Beth Kear had to move, she would regret leaving the dining room ceiling with its handmade plaster cherry blossom branches by ceramic artist Matthew Solomon. And who can blame him?
The branches were part of the character of her neo-Grec Upper East Side townhouse when she and her husband, Nathan, gutted the property six years ago and decked it out with new decorative details.
Their interior designer, Joe Nahem, envisioned a garden floating above their heads. He asked Mr. Solomon, who was known for making elaborate flower pots with pebbled clay petals, how he would feel about plaster ceilings. “He thought I was crazy,” Mr. Nahem said, “but very excited.” (Mr. Solomon died in 2021.)
The botanical motif sets the tone for the rest of the room — its damask brocade upholstery, Venetian glass chandeliers and custom embroidered chairs. Six years later, the roof still makes the hearts of those who see it swell.
“The project has a long life,” said Mr. Nahem. “Every person who looks at it sees something different without connecting it to a period. That’s why it works.”
Made from gypsum, a soft mineral that is often white in color, plaster is found in ancient Egyptian tombs and ancient Greek temples. It’s a kind of grace of traditional Western architecture, the gilded ceilings of Versailles, and the cornices and wedding cake bijoux of Mount Vernon. And now, with the push of social media, plaster ornamentation is on the rise, becoming a shorthand for quiet luxury while bearing the guise of modern culture.
Unlike the ornate handwork that was common in the past, new applications of plaster are “exciting and offer a channel to reinvent the architectural details of the past,” says Chicago-area interior designer Alexandra Kahler. “I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s fun to see how it’s reinterpreted.”
Put a hashtag in front of “plaster” on Instagram’s search page and about 912,000 decorating-related posts pop up. On TikTok, #plastercraft has over 673,000 views. Google searches for “frieze architecture” — referring to a key element of classical architecture — increased 110 percent in the past 12 months, and “custom made” was a top trending topic related to cornices.
This wave of love for plaster is “due to not having what other people have,” says founder and creative director Mike Fisher. of Studio Indigo In London.
Plaster decoration is an antidote to the gallery-like spaces of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which became modern farmhouse rooms. “White-box interiors don’t celebrate craftsmanship,” says New York classical architect Peter Pennoyer, adding that the attention to detail required to execute plaster moldings can be breathtaking.
Plaster can enhance the look of a room. Mr. Pennoir, whose new book, “Peter Pennoir Architects: City/Country,” will be published in October, Says it’s often the choice of clients with contemporary art collections who want more than a featureless wall for a background.
Recently, his firm added a large Jean-Michel Basquiat painting to a traditional plaster cornice. “This setting is unexpected and challenges us to look at the painting in a new way,” he said.
Plaster decoration tends to have a grounding effect. “That security of the past gives us the comfort to look to the future,” says Rachel H., founder of the architecture and design firm RHG A+D in Montclair, NJ. Grochowski says, “Our inherent humanity encourages us to explore, but the limitations of knowing that there is anything known.”
That’s why, for a circa-1910 Tudor Revival house in Montclair, Ms. Grochowski accentuated the white Gothic curves of the original tracery plaster ceilings with a fresh coat of jet-black paint.
Adrian J. Taylor, Principal of Hyde Park Moldings, A Plaster fabricators in Hauppauge, NY have come so far that we are currently living in a “plaster renaissance”. After a long drought of interest in decorative plaster in the post-World War II era — when contractors around the country fell in love with drywall — “people are realizing what a great material it is,” he said.
A new breed of computer-controlled modeling tools Making it easier to create what Mr Taylor describes as a “ceiling landscape”. Now, he says, almost all plaster ornaments are prefabricated rather than cast on site in a messy process of shaping liquid plaster of Paris with a metal blade.
As designers and contractors update their techniques, they also modernize classical profiles and patterns. For a traditional stone manor built eight years ago in New Jersey, Mr. Pennoyer’s firm introduced A Corinthian cornice without slipping into a time capsule. Instead of the usual jagged acanthus leaves, the cornice was given large, smooth leaves with pointed tips.
“Abstraction is really important,” Mr. Penoyer said. “You don’t have to follow pattern books. It’s not about showing off your historical knowledge, it’s about enjoying the sculptural potential of plaster.”
Inspired by British Regency architect Sir John Swain, Mr. Fisher designed plasterwork for a 19th-century Notting Hill villa in London that may recall a string of pearls, but also his client’s favorite game. “We ended up calling it a golf ball cornice,” he said said
For Adam Bergeron, founder and CEO of Inspired Ornamental in Salem, NH, the pandemic has sparked new creative adventures in plaster. As many Bostonians moved to vacation homes on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, some wanted details that reflected their new locations. Mr. Bergeron invented what was a new category: plaster sea decorations.
His fabrication company finds itself specializing in medallions of sea life: “We cast 50 different sand dollars to make a master mold” capturing “all the individual holes” that appear in the animal’s skeleton, he said. The studio did the same with starfish and scallop shells. (The company has already converted a Boston restaurant’s cellar dining room into a catacomb, casting plaster replicas of 2,500 human skulls and more than 1,800 thigh bones for ceilings, walls and fireplaces.)
Even a subtle dose of plaster ornamentation can be completely showstopping. Ms. Kahler looked at dandelions while designing a ceiling medallion for the dining room of the Lake Forest Showhouse and Gardens 2023 in suburban Chicago. He worked with Chicago Ornamental Plastering to create “exploding” petal sprays. “If the plaster is too thin, it feels flat and you lose that movement. Too thick, and it comes out heavy and heavy,” he explained.
If the past two or three years of social media have taught us anything, it’s that people are bold in their design choices, says Los Angeles interior designer Adam Hunter. For a client who wanted a nod to the traditional style, Mr. Hunter introduced plaster bands swirling around a tray ceiling in slightly amorphous ovals, almost like pools of water. It was finished with a mixture of plaster and Roman clay.
“The ethereal texture is supposed to be modern, but it feels like it’s always been there,” Mr Hunter said. Plaster ornament, he added, “is a beautiful investment that is here to stay.”