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A Fascinating Look at How One Architect Designs Dramatic Ceilings

Architect Mark Candelaria shares the importance of the upward glance.

By Janessa Hilliard | Photography by Werner Segarra

While it may not be the first thing one notices, there is no denying the dramatic effect ceilings can have on an interior. From exposed beams to finely detailed multidimensional vaults, what is up is where it’s at.

“I love ceilings,” architect Mark Candelaria admits. “I call them the heaven of the architecture. I always tell people to look around and really experience the three-dimensionality of a space.”

Candelaria often finds himself drawing in real time during client meetings. With the sweep of a pen, he designs the kind of intricate, curvaceous domes that would be as at home in a European cathedral as in a luxury residence in the desert Southwest. “The movement of a room and its views are paramount in ceiling design,” he notes. A living room elicits a contrasting feeling from the bustling kitchen, which is different still from a grand hall or entryway. “You try to subconsciously choreograph the experience that someone is going to have as they move through the space. We want one ceiling to then unfold to the next.”

Here, the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner shares his insights and processes for creating the ceilings of one Desert Mountain residence.

GOOD BONES

Candelaria creates homes from the inside out, driving the exterior to express the feeling he’s producing within a space.

“I’ll think of the interior and go, ‘OK, I need this type of roof in order to accommodate that kind of ceiling,’” he explains. “You adapt as the song is being played.”

Candelaria prefers to begin his designs by hand instead of by mouse. After completing a sketch, his team re-creates the design digitally, using computer-aided design, or “CAD,” a software program that develops a two-dimensional set of plans. From there, a consultant creates a rendering, a three-dimensional, photo-realistic representation of the space, using SketchUp or a similar computer program. This allows the architect—and the client—to get a sense of the space before it is physically built, including virtual exploration of how light moves through the home. Builders then bring the design to life.

The curved ceilings in the grand hall and living room of this home began as templates, builder Chris Manship explains. Wooden supports are crafted from plywood—often an inch or more thick—and are fastened to the framed walls and trusses. “Once the templates are in place, craftsmen fill the gaps with two-by-fours, cut to size and placed in a longitudinal direction, to create those barrels and arches,” he says.

It’s a lengthy process, requiring exact calculations by expert carpenters. Framing in this way ensures the correct movement along a smooth, seamless curve, both physically, for the craftsmen, and experientially, for those living in the home. “You can see how intricate all of those ceilings are,” he notes.

“I’ve always wanted to do a glass enclosure of one of these unfinished ceilings and just leave it like that,” Candelaria says, referring to the wood framing. “I think it would be so amazing to walk into a room and see the bones of something like that.”

THE GRAND HALL

This grand hall was designed to create a spine along the home, dictating the rhythm in which one experiences the space. From there, “each room kind of evolved organically off the main gallery,” Candelaria says. “The gallery was the connective element, joining all these spaces.”

This was accomplished by bridging one end to the other through groin-vaulted ceilings, using high arches to capture natural light and draw the eye upward. The repetitive sequence allows for a logical flow between the hall and the arteries of the home, such as the kitchen and living room.

Centering the groins where the vaults of the ceiling intersect on important rooms, windows and doors along the length of the spine prevents the hallway from feeling overly long. It’s a concept Candelaria has returned to often.

“We really try to get the math absolutely picture-perfect, so everything comes together in precise alignment,” he explains. “It’s one of those things you don’t consciously recognize, but you subconsciously feel it when you’re in a space.”

THE LIVING ROOM

The living room features twin symmetrical fireplaces, with each chimney mass tapering into the wall, which brings the viewer’s gaze upward, taking in the tracery trim ribbing along the groins and ending at “the precise intersection of three groin vaults,” says project manager Vivian Ayala.

“There’s a lot of trim work in this house. A lot of that material had to be specifically cut and fabricated to fit,” Manship adds. The team used various techniques, relief cuts in the wood or wetting the back of the drywall to bend the ceiling the way in which it was designed.

The half-round corbels on either side of the fireplaces accentuate the termination of the vaults. And it’s an opportunity for Candelaria to play with textures—and expectations.

The adjacent bifold door and arched transom window usher in natural light. The alignment evokes warmth and openness, offering a seamless transition between the indoor and outdoor spaces.

“Windows and glass make a huge difference of getting light up into these spaces—like cathedrals in Italy,” Candelaria explains. “You see those high, beautiful windows and how they bring light in, and it’s just magical.”

THE KITCHEN

The kitchen of this Rural Mediterranean-style home features a tray ceiling, relying on painted rafter beams to break up the space and divide it into sections, which are inlaid with reclaimed brick in a herringbone pattern. The bottom of the ceiling transitions into crown molding, creating movement down to the kitchen, while the top of the tray is lit by a skylight with a chandelier suspended from it.

The result is a conversation between New World and Old World, using earthy materials such as wood and brick. It’s a conversation that continues through the kitchen into the breakfast room and out onto the patio—a new translation appearing each time, mimicking the one before it in color or structure, but never repetitive.

“The thing I love is that when you see that ceiling 20 years from now, it will still look fantastic,” Candelaria says. “It’s a timeless effort.”

For more information, see Sources.

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