Are Tray Ceilings Outdated? – Timeless Elegance or Outdated Trend?

Are Tray Ceilings Outdated

If you’re a fan of those stunning, vintage and classical looking houses, then you’re probably a fan of tray ceilings too. A tray ceiling has a raised center that’s usually bordered with crown molding. No doubt, this was an elegant and stylish feature a few decades ago, but are tray ceilings outdated now?

Tray ceilings are certainly not outdated in this day and age. They can, however, look outdated if executed incorrectly. Modern design allows for the incorporation of tray ceilings, even in contemporary homes.

Let’s take a look at tray ceilings and how it can be used today.

Tray Ceilings of the Past

Tray ceilings have been around for ages. Picture those old, art deco like houses with crown molding everywhere – almost all of them had tray ceilings.

Often used in living rooms and large dining halls, these ceilings would make a room look bigger and act as a feature on its own. Tray ceilings were sometimes painted with mural type art, or bordered with huge crown moldings, and almost always had large chandeliers hanging down the center.

The recessed part of the tray ceiling can range anywhere from a couple of inches to a foot in depth. Older houses had higher ceilings, so tray recessions were much more dramatic back then.

Some homeowners still prefer this look even today. This look can definitely work, but it needs to be done right. Don’t use an old fashioned tray ceiling while keeping your walls and furniture basic or modern. You need to incorporate the art deco-ish feel throughout your home if you want to pull this look off.

Tastes will differ depending on the person. Some people will like the older, more traditional type of tray ceiling while others would prefer a more contemporary style.

Modern Classical Tray Ceiling
A perfect example of classical tray ceilings flowing well with this modern, but classical looking home.

What Makes a Tray Ceiling Look Outdated Today?

Some folks love vintage and classical looking homes so much that they will want to have one of their own. You might too. I don’t blame you, classical homes look great!

The problem is HOW those classical styles are implemented today. You see, architects and builders adapt with the times. Back in the ’50s, it was the norm to design and build those types of houses. People were accustomed to it, and they knew exactly how to do it.

But today, things are different. Styles have changed, along with building methods and technologies.

Architects don’t have the same visions as our predecessors, and builders don’t have the same skill-set as theirs. I’m not saying that we’re worse at our jobs, but what I am saying is that we have a totally new and refreshed set of skills.

However, these houses can still be designed and built today. Although in most cases, some modern or contemporary elements will be incorporated in the design.

It’s easy to make some mistakes without knowing it. I’ve seen it happen a lot in my architectural career. That said, it’s hard for a tray ceiling to look outdated if you’re actually going for the classical theme throughout the entire house.

But, if you try to force a classical tray ceiling in a contemporary home, then things can go south quickly.

If your home is not entirely classical or old-fashioned, and you’re thinking of adding a tray ceiling, then below is a short list of things that will make your tray ceilings look outdated:

  • Crown Moldings – I’m pretty sure this comes to mind first when people think of tray ceilings. Crown moldings are fine, but don’t go overboard with it.
  • Odd Shapes – Avoid using odd, geometric shapes for a tray ceiling, especially in a square or rectangular room.
  • High Tray Recession – Older houses generally have higher ceilings. So it was fine to have high tray recessions. In newer homes, it’s fine to have a lower recession. You don’t want the outer border of your ceiling to drop down just to accommodate a higher tray.
  • Center Pieces – You don’t need classical looking chandeliers as a center-piece. A newer, modern looking chandelier or fanlight can look just as great, or even better.
  • Painting – You may be tempted to paint a mural on the tray, almost resembling the Sistine Chapel. This could work, but not if the rest of your house is clean and modern looking.
Traditional Tray Ceiling
An example of a traditional style tray ceiling used in a modern home. This ceiling incorporates a double tray. Personally, I’m not a fan of this particular ceiling, but that’s because of the odd shape. The shape of a room will dictate the tray’s shape. In this scenario, I’d personally go with an elliptical shape or leave the ceiling flat.

Modern Tray Ceilings

Today, you can look at a tray ceiling without even realizing at first that it’s a tray ceiling. They are shallower, cleaner, simplistic and elegant. It’s definitely come a long way.

I’ve seen modern tray ceilings that have awesome shadow lines, LED lighting, downlighters, lamp-shades, hardwood and vinyl infill, and many other types of styles and finishes.

In fact, if you watch the video at the end of this article I wrote, then you’ll see vinyl flooring applied to a tray ceiling. It’s not the most extravagant tray ceiling, but that just shows how tray ceilings have evolved over the years.

So, if you love the idea of a tray ceiling but the rest of your house is modern and contemporary, don’t despair. In fact, I feel like adding a tray ceiling is easier in this scenario.

You can use the tray to accentuate other elements throughout your house or you can simply paint it white (or any other color for that matter). The possibilities are endless.

Modern Tray Ceiling
In this picture, you can see a glimpse of the tray ceiling that accentuates the warm wooden textures around the bedroom

I personally prefer keeping a clean design. So I would probably go for a shallow recess with a shadow-line, and the ceiling painted white all around. Here’s a link to an example on Pinterest (I didn’t download the image because I wasn’t sure about Copyrights).

The tray ceiling can also serve some functionality by housing ducts and electrical wiring in the dropped border section around the tray recess.

Below is a short list of feature ideas for modern tray ceilings:

  • Shallow Recess – Ceilings are typically lower today than they were a few decades ago, so try to keep the tray shallow. I personally prefer 2-3 inches for a tray.
  • Clean Lines – Modern houses and clean lines go hand-in-hand. A simple rectangular tray can look super slick. Also, avoid using crown moldings if you want to achieve clean lines.
  • Tray Finish – A variety of modern finishes can be used on the tray recess. Hardwood, vinyl and modern ceiling tiles are a few, but I prefer a smooth paint finish.
  • Lights – Downlights and LED strip lighting can be used quite effectively in modern tray ceilings. You can have fun picking out a cool centerpiece light too.


Tray ceilings are awesome! Especially if done correctly. I hope this article helped you in making a decision about tray ceilings.

If you are planning to add a tray ceiling, don’t forget to ask your architect for advice. Architects and interior designers can produce something magnificent for you if you all sit down and work together.

Great things happen when you put the right people in the same room.

Photo of author

Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.