What is a Tray Ceiling?

Sheri Cyprus

A tray ceiling is a rectangular architectural feature that is either inverted or recessed. Tray ceilings can be plain, ornate, subtle or dramatic. Lighting is commonly featured in this design, and these ceilings are often found in dining rooms, hallways and living rooms.

A tray ceiling adds height and architectural interest to a room.
A tray ceiling adds height and architectural interest to a room.

The basic purpose of a tray ceiling is to break up an ordinary flat ceiling line and add a variation in height to create architectural interest. A feeling of spaciousness can be created by the look of the different levels and the tray design can make a low ceiling look higher. Inverted tray ceilings that have the extra level hanging downward rather than recessed, can call attention to an object such as a range hood or a pot rack.

Crown molding can make a tray ceiling look even more dramatic.
Crown molding can make a tray ceiling look even more dramatic.

For example, a small plain kitchen can be made more interesting by creating an inverted tray ceiling pot rack as a focal point. The pot rack area could be painted or finished to match the ceiling or it could be in a completely different color and/or material to really stand out. Tray ceilings, whether inverted or recessed, often have molding trim around them.

Crown molding around a large tray ceiling in a dining or living room can be a dramatic and beautiful feature. The style is adaptable to anything from contemporary to traditional depending on the type of lighting used in the space. Everything from a chandelier to a series of pendant lamps can be added to this type of ceiling. Some tray ceilings are octagonal rather than rectangular.

Paint color can really enhance a tray ceiling. For instance, a recessed ceiling can be painted a few shades darker than the main ceiling color to make it appear even more recessed and to give a stronger contrast to the look. Or, for almost a skylight type of look, a deeply recessed tray ceiling can be painted a light color such as pale blue. Some people even paint murals in the recessed or inverted part of this type of ceiling. Inverted tray ceilings are also excellent for displaying an interesting wood or metal surface as well as recessed lighting.

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Discussion Comments


We have a 50s era home with ceilings that are lower than we would've like. It bothered me for the entire first year we moved into the house. Finally, I spoke with a decorator friend who suggested I convert them into tray ceilings. I decided if I couldn't have the high ceilings I always dreamed of, I could at least trick myself into thinking I did. With a little time and money, the ceiling was altered to a tray ceiling.

An illusion of space has been created by my tray ceilings. Nobody would ever know!


So, a tray ceiling has a border around the edge, or the center is recessed while the edges stick out? This is different from a paneled ceiling, like a tin ceiling, where the individual tiles may have designs and add visual interest. It's difficult for me to picture.

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