Look! Up on the wall! It's a golf ball! It's a starfish! It's plaster!
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Look! Up on the wall! It's a golf ball! It's a starfish! It's plaster!
Adam Bergeron pours a mold at Inspired Ornamental, his plaster fabrication company in Salem, N.H., on Aug. 18, 2023. Designers and fabricators are finding new forms for the ornamental material. (Jesse Burke/The New York Times)

by Yelena Moroz Alpert

NEW YORK, NY.- If Beth Cayre had to move, she would regret leaving the dining room ceiling, with its plaster cherry blossom branches hand molded by ceramics artist Matthew Solomon. And who could blame her?

The branches were part of what gave character to her Neo-Grec Upper East Side town house when she and her husband, Nathan, gutted the property six years ago and dressed it up with new ornamental details.

Their interior designer, Joe Nahem, envisioned a garden floating above their heads. He asked Solomon, who was known for making elaborate floral vessels surfaced with ruffled clay petals, how he would feel about doing a plaster ceiling. “He thought I was crazy,” Nahem said, “but was very excited.” (Solomon died in 2021.)

The botanical motif set the tone for the rest of the room — its damask brocade upholstery, Venetian glass chandeliers and custom embroidered chairs. Six years later, the ceiling still swells the hearts of those who see it.

“The project has longevity,” Nahem said. “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 often occurs in a stark white hue, plaster can be found in ancient Egyptian tombs and ancient Greek temples. It’s a sort of grace note of traditional Western architecture, the stuff of the gilded ceilings of Versailles, and the cornices and wedding-cake bijoux of Mount Vernon. And now, with a push from social media, plaster ornamentation is on the upswing, becoming shorthand for quiet luxury while bearing the quirks of modern culture.

In contrast to the ornate handwork that was common in the past, the new applications of plaster “are exciting and offer a channel to reinvent past architectural detail,” said Alexandra Kaehler, a Chicago-area interior designer. “I know it is not for everyone, but it is fun to see how it is reinterpreted.”

Put a hashtag in front of “plaster” on Instagram’s search page, and about 912,000 decor-related posts pop up. On TikTok, #plastercraft has more than 673,000 views. Google searches for “frieze architecture” — referring to a key component of classical architecture — increased 110% in the past 12 months, and “custom made” was a top trending topic relating to cornices.

This surge of love for plaster stems from “not having what other people have,” said Mike Fisher, the founder and creative director of Studio Indigo in London.

Plaster ornamentation is an antidote to the austere, gallery-like spaces of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which morphed into modern farmhouse rooms. “White-box interiors don’t celebrate craftsmanship,” New York classical architect Peter Pennoyer said, noting that the attention to detail required to execute plaster moldings can be breathtaking.

Plaster can enhance the objects in a room. Pennoyer, whose new book, “Peter Pennoyer Architects: City/Country,” is due out in October, said it is often the choice of clients with contemporary art collections who want more than a featureless wall for a background.

Recently, his firm paired a big Jean-Michel Basquiat painting with a traditional plaster cornice. “This setting is unexpected and challenges us to see the painting in a new way,” he said.

Plaster ornamentation tends to have a grounding effect. “That safety of the past gives us comfort to look to the future,” said Rachael H. Grochowski, the founder of the architecture and design firm RHG A+D, in Montclair, New Jersey. “Our inherent humanity encourages us to explore, but in the confines of knowing that there is something familiar.”

Which is why, for a circa-1910 Tudor Revival house in Montclair, Grochowski accentuated the white Gothic curves of the original tracery plaster ceilings by outlining them with a fresh coat of jet-black paint.

Adrian J. Taylor, the principal of Hyde Park Mouldings, a plaster fabricator in Hauppauge, New York, has gone so far as to declare that we are currently living in the midst of a “plaster renaissance.” After a long drought of interest in ornamental plaster in the post-World War II era — when contractors around the country fell in love with drywall — “people are realizing what a fantastic material it is,” he said.

A new breed of computer-controlled modeling tools is making it easier to create what Taylor described as “ceiling landscapes.” Now, he said, almost all plaster ornament is prefabricated rather than molded 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, Pennoyer’s firm introduced a Corinthian cornice without slipping into a time capsule. Rather than bearing the usual frilly acanthus foliage, the cornice was given large, sleek leaves with protruding tips.

“Abstraction is really important,” Pennoyer said. “You don’t have to follow the pattern book. It’s not about showing off your historical knowledge, but about enjoying the sculptural potential of plaster.”

Inspired by British Regency architect Sir John Soane, Fisher designed plasterwork for a 19th-century Notting Hill villa in London that called to mind a string of pearls, but also his client’s favorite sport. “We ended up calling it the golf ball cornice,” he said.

For Adam Bergeron, the founder and CEO of Inspired Ornamental, in Salem, New Hampshire, the pandemic sparked new creative adventures in plaster. As many Bostonians relocated to vacation homes on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, some asked for details that reflected their new locations. Bergeron invented what appeared to be a new category: plaster ocean decor.

His fabrication company found itself specializing in sea life medallions: “We cast 50 different sand dollars to make a master mold” capturing “all the individual holes” that appear on the creature’s exoskeleton, he said. The studio did the same with starfish and scallop shells. (The company had already transformed a Boston restaurant’s cellar dining room into catacombs, casting plaster replicas of 2,500 human skulls and more than 1,800 thigh bones for the ceiling, walls and fireplace area.)

Even a delicate dose of plaster ornamentation can be totally showstopping. Kaehler looked to dandelions gone to seed when designing a ceiling medallion for the dining room of the Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens 2023, in suburban Chicago. She worked with Chicago Ornamental Plastering to create the “exploding” petal spray. “If the plaster is too thin, then it feels flat and you lose that movement. Too thick, and it comes off as heavy and bulky,” she explained.

If the last two or three years on social media have taught us anything, it is that people are braver in their design choices, said Adam Hunter, a Los Angeles interior designer. For a client who wanted to wink at traditional style, Hunter introduced plaster bands swirling around a tray ceiling in a slightly amorphous oval shape, almost like a pool of water. It was finished with a mixture of plaster and Roman clay.

“The ethereal texture is supposed to be modern, but looks like it’s been there all along,” Hunter said. Plaster ornament, he added, “is a beautiful investment that is here to stay.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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