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Mouldings (Interior)

By Lindsay Daniel and Sarah Andrews

Have you ever entered a room and thought, “Something just doesn’t look right”?  You may not have realized it at the time, but there’s a good chance that the proportions of the room, as defined by mouldings, were all wrong.  One function of proportion is to help control how a room is perceived.  Moulding selections, their size, and where they are placed can help steer the proportions of your room.  (We will explain in a later article how these interior mouldings mimic classical proportions of columns that you see on the exterior of buildings).

Three of the most typical interior mouldings used today:

  • Crown Moulding: A projecting moulding located where the ceiling or roof and wall meet.
  • Chair Rail: A wall moulding that prevents chairs pushed against the wall from damaging the surface.
  • Baseboard: A flat moulding running around the base of a wall  where it meets the floor. 

Function ~ At a basic level, mouldings conceal joints, or junctures, between two similar or dissimilar materials (this also keeps the bugs and roaches out!).  For example, the area where a hardwood floor meets a sheetrock wall is covered by a baseboard, thus creating a transition between the two.  Less obvious functions of mouldings include serving as a visual “foot” (baseboard) and “head” (crown), as well as creating eye-pleasing proportions within a room.

History ~ There is much debate on the origin of mouldings, but most sources agree that the ancient Greeks were among the first to use these architectural elements for practical and aesthetic purposes. The Greeks created definite stylistic rules, to which many historic buildings adhere.  The Romans followed in the footsteps of their Greek counterparts and many of today’s commonly used moulding profiles and proportions originated with the Greeks and Romans.  Well-known shapes, such as egg and dart, dentil mould, ogee, ovolo, and cavetto all date back to ancient building. These profiles, along with many others, became indicative of classical building all over Europe.

Evolution: Coming to America ~ Just because Europeans came to America did not mean that they left their rich history of building details behind. In colonial America, carpenters used hand planes to shape wood mouldings – rougher relatives of the grand mouldings they left behind (that were most likely in stone).

Results ~ Today, mouldings are often considered afterthoughts – simply something that’s “supposed” to be part of room – and are not carefully chosen to enhance the proportions of that room.

Tips ~ There are many different proportional systems; here is an easy system to use.

  • Rule of proportion: Consider the height of your ceilings when selecting baseboards (this guide works for typical, 8’ - 10’ ceilings).  One good rule of thumb is to observe an approximate inch/foot ratio (1:12) or slightly less; for example, if your ceilings are nine feet tall, a nine inch tall baseboard could best anchor the room and provide a substantial visual “foot.”
  • Rule of proportion: In selecting a suitable crown moulding, one should also take into account the ceiling height – a three inch crown in a room with ten foot ceilings looks like a very tall man with a very tiny hat!  You have to test this one since the shape and color of the crown affects the perception. However, a comfortable proportion would be somewhere between a ½ inch/ foot (1:24) or an inch/foot (1:12) ratios. This means for a 10 foot ceiling a crown assembly height should be between 5” and 10”. Keeping an appropriate proportion is the key to the success of crown moulding.
  • Rule of proportion: For lovers of chair rail, use a fractional proportion of 1/3 to 2/3  – meaning that the chair rail is placed in the lower third of the wall to make the ceiling appear taller.  Take care not to bisect the room – for instance, if the ceilings are eight feet tall, keep the chair rail well below four feet to maintain a pleasing proportion.  Bisected rooms appear to have lower ceilings.
  • Remember: Even though these “rules” are not iron clad, these ratios will bring dignity and order to your interiors.  By using rules of proportion, you can control how your room is perceived.

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DO

Classical Proportions – compare this proportion to those of the Roman columns.  The base (wall below chairrail), the column shaft (upper wall), and the entablature (the crown) are perfectly proportioned to each other in this room, thus making the ceiling appear taller and more elegant.

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DON'T

Poor proportions – The wainscoting makes the room look squatty by bisecting the wall.

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Cavetto

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Ogee

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Ovolo

The Ogee is the moulding shape that you typically find at home improvement stores, but don't let that deter you!  Scout out these other beautiful shapes at lumber yards and other resources.  My favorites are always the less ornate.  Check out how enticing the light is that plays on the more simple shapes.

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Proportion ~ example

Three examples of the same room.  These drawings show that you can control how a room is perceived by manipulating the mouldings.  Doesn’t the ceiling appear taller in the top drawing?  The base, columns, and crown contribute to that overall feeling.

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Column Vocabulary

The beauty of columns lie in the proportional systems that govern them.  That system is based on the ratio of the diameter of the pedestal and column to the entablature, and such a system can help guide moulding selections.

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Lindsay Daniel provides residential architecture services to Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding communities.