The idea of a cornice has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. In Classical Greek architecture, the cornice was the top element of the entablature, the horizontal section of a building exterior immediately above a series of columns and below the roof.
Cornices had a basic utilitarian purpose, because they directed rainwater away from the sides of a building, but they quickly became a decorative element as well.
They have been a staple of Western interior architecture for many generations, starting during the Georgian Period and running through Regency (more decorative) and the Victorian (revivalist) Period.
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 Neo-Baroque) and Edwardian periods (cleaner lines with less ornament).
Because of this long heritage, a sound understanding of the cornice, its historyand 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, the Victorian cornice being no exception, and the Gothic-influenced cornices of that time are still popular today.
Plaster cornice that lasts
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.