Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Third Dimension in Architecture and Design

Recently, I profiled Massachusetts architect Katie Hutchison. When I first learned of her online articles, I was particularly smitten with Katie's discussion of the third dimension in design and architecture. In her article, Katie wrote:

"You would think it would be obvious, but sometimes it needs to be said: attention to the third dimension is critical to shaping space. All too often in a rush to plan room-to-room adjacencies and sequencing on a particular floor level, treatment of the third dimension becomes an afterthought".

After reading Katie's article, I went through the pictures in my own inspiration files to see where the 'third dimension' adds to, and even defines, a space. Many of the examples I found were in the beautiful ceiling treatments that the designers and architects used, but there are so many possibilities for adding the third dimension to a space. Here are some of my favorite examples.


This picture has circulated around the blogosphere, and it seems as if the ladder is the feature that captures everyone's attention. The ladder and the opening at the top is the third dimension that gives definition to this large two story space. The mystery of what is at the top of the ladder is part of the intrigue of the room. Interior design by Christopher Maya.

Katie says that an area often neglected is the ceiling, and many designers see it as the perfect canvas for a beautiful design feature. This ceiling, in Marble House, Newport, was one of the most memorable features of the home. The intricacy of the ceiling and the fretwork all around the room was breathtaking to see in person.

My favorite stately home in England, Blenheim Palace, has a beautiful library that is my favorite room in the house. The eye is naturally taken up to appreciate the detail on the ceiling, and the shape of the space makes it feel like you are passing through an amazing portal. At the end of the space: a magnificent organ.


John Saladino is perhaps the master at making every space full of subtle dimension; every surface is an opportunity for a statement, whether it be subtle or bold. The walls are textured and appear to be carved out of stone, an impression solidified by the columns that flank the door. The leather door with the detail in nails is so original and adds so much to this space - it simply would not be the same with just plain painted wood doors.


I love the look of this entry to designer Frank Babb Randolph's townhouse; he added the door surround, which is quite sculptural and defines the style of the house. I am a big fan of beautifully defined front doors as the perfect introduction to a home, and a great extra dimension to a house.


This is an amazing interpretation of a staircase, in an entry designed by Bunny Williams. There are so many elements in this space that add the 'third dimension' - the texture of the walls, the columns in the window above the stair, the wave pattern on the floor, the curve of the wall, and of course the magnificent stairs.


The groined ceiling and detailed columns are the the third dimension of this space that makes it extraordinary. Would a flat ceiling and walls have the same impact?


This unusual room has a recessed ceiling and a curve built into the wall, a third dimension to the room that makes it very powerful from an architecture and design perspective. The shape of the dining chairs reflects the shape of the room, in a nice use of a repeating design element. Interiors by J. Randall Powers.


Do you notice that the area for the console is recessed in this room? A unique architectural feature that gives this room extra dimension. Architecture by Steve Giannetti.


A richly detailed room with beautiful moldings on the ceiling and an ornate mantel give this room an extra dimension of elegance. Interior design by Suzanne Kasler, architecture by Bill Baker.


I went to a party at this house many years ago, and was struck by the hand painted ceiling and the trestle beams in the ceiling. It is hard to see the painting on the ceiling, but the trestle really made a large room with high ceilings much more intimate. This room would not have the same impact if it did not have the detail on the ceiling - an example where the third dimension in the ceiling treatment really defines the room. Architecture by Jack Arnold.


I love the look of this room - the walls have beams, similar to what I have seen in Tudor style homes in England that are authentic to the time. Again - it is the third dimension of the wall and ceiling treatment that defines this room. Interior design by Tom Scheerer.


This Hermes box inspired room has lovely walls, a third dimension in design that really defines the room. I have seen those more and more often in Atlanta - a paneled wood room with wood that is bleached, waxed, or glazed to lighten the feel of the wood. The Pottery Barn rug also adds a great look to the room. Interiors by Melanie Turner.

katherine newman_petercebulak

I can't tell if this is a groined ceiling, but the effect of all of the curves in the ceilings is dramatic and beautiful - a beautiful dimension to the space. Design by Katherine Newman.


I did not notice the ceiling when I first saw this picture, but upon further examination, I see that the ceiling is painted to give it a coffered look. Simply painting a ceiling or giving it an interesting treatment is an easy way to add dimension to a space.


I saved this picture because of the beautiful painting by Mira Hecht, but also love the look of the curved arch that separates the two seating areas, varying the ceiling for additional interest and space definition. These are elements that give an extra dimension to the space.


I love this arched passageway in a home with architecture by Steve Giannetti. What a great way to transition from one room to another - and a good use of the dead zone under the stairs. Katie says that 'spatial variety in the form of interludes with lower ceilings in which to pause or take personal shelter can relieve otherwise tall, open spaces'. I thought about this picture when reading Katie's words.


This picture, from an ad for oak flooring, has both a massive fireplace and beams on the ceiling, as well as thickly framed bookshelves to the side of the fireplace. There is a lot of texture and dimension to this room.

vandl_opening to kitchen

Yet another space with architecture by Steve Giannetti (who adds such outstanding architectural details to the houses he designs). I love this ceiling, which has beams but they are laid in a pattern that gives a coffer effect.


The art mounted on the bookshelf, a signature design feature in libraries by Jan Showers, adds a great dimension to the room.


One of my new favorite pictures - I think the double doors is a beautiful third dimension' design element that adds so much to this space, a thoughtful approach to balancing privacy and light.


Even something as seemingly simple as painting a door in a color other than white is a great way to add that extra third dimension to a room (although, of course, this room has so many other wonderful dimensional design features too). Interiors by S. Gambrel.


Windows can be a powerful design element in a room that gives a great dimension to the space. The beautiful windows (not to mention the gorgeous chevron floors) add to the architectural strength of this room. This is from Ina Garten's pied a terre in New York City.


An example where unique windows add a great dimension to the room; the 'x' motif is one of my favorites. Note the beams used as the window frame - unusual and beautiful.


Another dimension that is often seen in French architecture is an enfilade style design, where one room opens to another, without the use of halls. This design gives a wonderful axial view from one room through to the room on the end, often with a beautiful vignette at the end. The walls are also done in an interesting treatment that adds dimension to the room.


Another home with the enfilade design, as well as a unique and beautiful treatment on the ceiling and door surrounds.


Look at the detail in this stairwell, in a home by architect William Hefner. The curve of the stair, the design of the rail and window, and even the design of the ceiling are details that certainly add many layers and that 'third dimension' to the architecture.

The depth of the window was what first caught my eye in this beautiful room designed by Betty Burgess. This room is full of the kind of architectural details that make a room exceptional, from the ceiling to the fireplace to the windows and flooring. Image via Veranda.


A kitchen from a renovated 1930s home in Atlanta. The kitchen was added on, and the vaulted ceiling and lack of upper cabinets emphasizes the airiness of the space. The home is Tudor in style, with relatively low ceilings and a cozy, intimate feel that are typical of the time when it was built, so entering the kitchen wing is a great way to balance differing ceiling heights. This is another way that a third dimension in architecture is utilized - varying the heights of the ceilings.


The shiplap style ceiling is so popular these days, and adds a noticeable third dimension to this beautiful kitchen by Victoria Hagan.


There is something about this room that is so unique and appealing. It has light on two sides - both sides of the room are glass. The columns make a seamless transition between the inside and the outside, giving this indoor room the feeling of a loggia. The ceiling adds texture and dimension to the room. Interiors by Lars Bolander.

Readers have emailed me and asked how they can make a house have more of a unique feel, as most of us do not live in custom homes where there is a lot of architectural detail. Although many of the homes in this post are very customized, I have seen home design shows, particularly ones focusing on getting a home ready for sale, install interesting architectural elements into fairly bland homes - like crown molding purchased from Home Depot, wall molding that frames spaces on a wall, detail on stair treads, and interesting ceiling treatments. Even painting a ceiling or a door in a color, instead of builder's white, is a great way to add another dimension to a room.


  1. Wonderful post, and thoughts.Yes I have seen some of the images, I now see them with a different eye to the details you describe!

  2. Karena, thank you for this comment! This is exactly how I felt when reading Katie's article - I started to see my old favorite pictures with a whole new eye. So glad you 'got' my post!

  3. I'm with you and Katie 100%. Your choices are fantastic. Treys and vaults are big in even medium priced new houses. Some are way over the top. It doesn't take much to make a big difference on a ceiling.

    But there is just about no limit to the cost of a ceiling, particularly when woodworking is involved.

    We have a little cathedral in one room. We got into a discussion - Gordon, Bill and us - about some beams. Everybody agreed it would be fantastic. But Bill looked us in eye and said, "Forget it, you don't have enough money."

    So the shape with 3 planes is the feature rather than decorative details. Bill even made the ceiling about 3' lower than it could have been: humanizing the proportions so it feels the best it can.

    A Pattern Language has something to say about how ceilings make us feel. "190. CEILING HEIGHT VARIETY" rings true in my house anyway.

  4. Oh, I am all about the third dimension. That's where I exist. And I never do a plain ceiling! These examples are just exquisite! Excellent post!

  5. What a fabulous look at the third dimension. I always like seeing ceiling treatments that are balanced but attended to. Except for Newport which was a different Era and always gorgeous to see. Love that Bunny Williams staircase!

  6. Love the concept of a "third dimension." It really does make all the difference in a room, doesn't it? I just never realized what "it" was until now. Thanks for the wonderful post and inspiring images.

  7. **** Heavens!!! Such a SUPERB BLOG today!!! Most sincere thanks for a collection of simply FABULOUS "EVERYTHINGS"!!!

    I became enamored w/ "the potential of ceilings" when I had our "formal" DR's great ceiling done~~~ coppers, lavenders, etc, like our breathtaking sunsets that go down over the pool... I can't imagine that, or the round LR spaces, WITHOUT a special nod to the ceilings...

    The deeeep windows in one photo you shared?... Breathtakingly divine!!! Large windows on three sides of the room?... ALWAYS supreme!!! Your choices of SPACES TO SHARE TODAY?... P*R*I*C*E*L*E*S*S!!!!!!!

    THANK YOU, thank you, thank you!!!
    Linda in AZ *

  8. * P.S. I copied SOOOOO MANY PHOTOS here that even tho I just added a NEW color cartridge on the printer just a few DAYS ago, I have to change it ALREADY!!!! (And I'm sooo glad I DO!!! What greaaaaat inspirational photos you shared!!!)

    **** Thanks again! ****

  9. The lighting fixtures - both on the ceiling and the lamps - are phenomenal in the Hermes box room. And the two kitchens you featured are striking and beautiful, as well!

    It is amazing how important the architectural details of a home are rather than just the decor. Adding moldings, custom windows, or wainscoting to a room can completely revamp the space. Especially in all of the cookie-cutter homes and condos popping up everywhere.

    Lovely post, as always!

  10. Almost too much beauty to take in...thank you. I painted my dining room ceiling the palest aqua blue to match some Vietri aqua chargers I use as dinner plates...had it down to three shades that I layered, added glazing to give it subtle sheen. The chandelier has crystals grouped as flowers. Absolutely gorgeous effect. The decorator's "Go west, young man" equivalent..."Look up" . Trish

  11. I've been struggling with how to deal with the huge expanse of space that my two-story living room creates...I definitely want to incorporate all that height, but still give the room the intimacy I'm looking for (after all, it is an informal space). This post is definitely giving me some good direction!

  12. Great rooms....love the Hermes inspired!

    Hey are you flooded down your way? This is craziness. Hope all is well for you.


  13. You find some of the most amazing rooms and always have such wonderfully insightful observations to share :-)

    I kept thinking I'd seen my favourite room, then I'd scroll down and see another one that took my breath away. They're ALL gorgeous!!


  14. Enjoyed the post...felt like I was back in design class. It was so fun to dissect each room and look for the special architectural elements. Thanks for providing such great images and illustrations.

  15. you should be teaching design! it's always a lesson here. remember vanishing threshold, now third dimension!

  16. Something new this morning. Thanks for the light-bulb-moment/s.

    Your 3rd dimension transposes to the landscape too.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  17. You always teach me someting new! I love learning from you and looking at things in a different way. My perspective is always enhanced after your posts. Thank You!!! Great post!!

  18. They say the devil is in the details, but it is precisely those same details that separates the ordinary from the devine!

  19. Fantastic Post!! I have saved it for a more detailed study. Thank you!

  20. wow! You pulled some great spaces, I love the first one and also did a post on it a while back. I always love beams on the ceiling too. Thanks for visiting and for the sweet notes that you left there.

  21. Wow! What a wonderful post, thank you! It's full of great images, details and concepts, kicking the mind into high gear thinking of all the possibilities. It is nice to see and share what can be added to a home with architectural details that will help transform it and give it some wow factor.
    And may I just go on the record to say that I love Steve Giannetti's houses. :) I can't think of a one that I wouldn't want to live in, he has quite an amazing eye for detail. xo

  22. It's great fun to see how Things That Inspire has brought an eye for the third dimension to these interiors. The ceiling configurations and treatments, textured walls, layered view corridors, door surrounds, staircases, and trompe l'oeils illustrated here reinforce our seemingly innate penchant for spatial depth and variety. I'm so glad you shared with your readers how rich our three-dimensional environments can be.

  23. Amazing entry! One of the best I have read lately.

  24. Thank you. That was a fantastic post.

  25. Thank you for the comments, everyone, and thank you to Katie for introducing me to a new way of seeing the world around me!

    Katie also points out (as does Tara) that this concept applies to landscape architecture as well. All I see in my landscape right now is a soggy mess - we have had so much rain that everything is a muddy mess here in Atlanta.

  26. Beautiful images and a very good lesson. So many of us move into featureless boxes and work hard to add such details and dimensions... it's the thing that makes all the difference and yet most people don't even realize it when deciding whether they do or don't like a room. And you're right that very nice changes can be made even on a limited budget... especially if you're willing to most of the work yourself!

  27. Thank you so much for these inspiring images! I filed them almost all!


  28. I will be shocked if I don't see this on blog watch this week! Fantastic post. It was so much fun looking at each image first before reading your commentary and then after. Each image transformed. Thank you for including Steve's work. He was thrilled!
    Most people just don't see the difference. You do.


  29. Gorgeous. I now have words (and pics) for my here-to-fore unnamed obsession. Wonderful post!

  30. thank you so much for this insightful post! it is very true that the ceiling and spaces in rooms are very important and often overlooked. i could never really put my finger on it but you have hit the nail on the head!

  31. Thank you so much for this GREAT article, you really illustrated the point perfectly with the pics! I totally agree with everyone commenting here, now I can't help but notice the third dimention everywhere!


Thank you for your comments! I strive to make my blog positive in tone, and appreciate the same courtesy when comments are made. Thank you!


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