What Is a Cornice?

The word cornice (which means “ledge” in Italian) can be defined as any horizontal moulding that sits at the ‘crown’ of a building or piece of furniture. With reference to buildings, cornice could refer to the often decorated ledge around the exterior of a building (which has the purpose of diverting rain water away from building’s walls) or it could refer to decorative plaster mouldings on the building’s interior. These interior architectural mouldings appear around the tops of interior walls, pedestals or over the interior side of windows and have been a staple of Western interior architecture for many generations, starting during the Georgian Period and running through Regency (more decorative), Victorian (revivalist, from medieval Gothic to Neo Baroque) and Edwardian periods (cleaner lines with less ornament). Because of this long heritage, a sound understanding of the cornice, its history and its applications make up an important part of the study of architecture and interior design, and as an architectural element, it remains ever-popular today and can typically be seen in all different manner of properties all around the globe.

What is the purpose of a cornice?

As mentioned above, on the exterior of a building, the cornice serves to send rain water away from the walls of the building, thus protecting them from erosion and other water-related ills (and minimising rain coming in through open windows). These exterior cornices have been architectural features since Greek times. These days, home builders employ gutters, eaves (the overhanging, bottom edges of rooves) and project the ends of gables to achieve this drainage. On the interior of a house, though the cornice comes in a myriad of different styles and lines, they all have solely a decorative function.

Types and uses of interior cornice

From the Georgian period onwards, the grander rooms in a building, used for receiving and entertaining guests, would have more elaborate mouldings, whilst smaller private rooms had simpler decoration. The first Georgian period designs were taken from classical influences, from Greek and Roman Palladian to English Baroque, and a common design was the egg and dart or dentil which featured along the bottom edge of the moulding. The egg and dart cornice is still popular today, especially on higher ceilings where a large egg and dart can give a room an instantly classical, Georgian feel. Along with the egg and dart, the Georgian period gave us many different examples of cornices with clean, horizontal lines, whose neutrality is perfectly suited to all kinds of modern properties. The Georgian Period was punctuated by the Regency Period which brought with it more decorative and detailed cornice designs, with intricate leaf work being widely used. The prosperous Victorian era mouldings are very eclectic in design, and the Gothic-influenced cornices of that time are still popular today.

Fibrous plaster cornice mouldings

The most authentic and durable material for interior, period cornice mouldings is fibrous plaster. Fibrous plaster is composed of plaster that’s been laid upon wood-stretched canvas. It is widely used for architectural mouldings such as cornices, ceiling roses and ornamental work as well as columns, pillars and pilasters. If you were restoring a Grade II listed building, this would likely be the material you would use, but installing a fibrous plaster cornice is not an easy job and not for the casual DIY enthusiast working on their own, as it’s at least a 2-person job and requires master craftsmen with years of experience to perfect. In the right hands, though, fibrous plaster is by far and away the superior material for interior cornice decoration, and the only real choice for authentic restoration and high-end renovation.

If you have any further questions regarding cornices or would like to discuss a project you are involved with that may involve cornice work, feel free to contact us for an informal chat.