What are Cornices?

What exactly are Cornices?

You might think cornices sound like something that grows on the bottom of your foot. But in the world of architecture, a cornice is a horizontal, decorative moulding that sits between the wall and roof in both the interior and exterior of your home. ‘Cornice’ is an Italian word meaning ‘ledge’, so don’t be alarmed, the cornices we’re exploring today don’t require a pumice stone or file to get rid of.

In the interior of your home, you can think of cornices as skirting boards for your roof. Even though they are not designed to protect the wall from bumps and scuffs as skirtings do, they provide somewhat of a similar function. Cornices are designed to disguise unsightly joints between your wall and roof. They are also intended to hide the gap left between plasterboard and timber framing to allow for expansion and contraction of the wood, which can often lead to the plasterboard cracking.

Cornices also have a decorative function like skirting boards and architraves, which are designed to enhance the aesthetic of your home. Interior cornices are not as elaborate as some of the other moulding styles, but when you see homes with ornate mouldings that protrude from the top of the outside walls just below the roofline, these are external cornices.

An example of classic interior cornices.

What are cornices used for?

In addition to creating a certain flair or stylistic feature in your home, cornices also provide an architectural functionality. This functionality differs between interior and external cornices.

Interior Cornices

Interior cornices provide a number of functions. As mentioned above, they are used to hide the joints between your wall and your ceiling and cover any cracks in the plasterboard. Interior cornices are also designed to brighten up a room by deflecting light from dark corners where there are often shadows. Interior cornices can also make a room look bigger if they’re eye-catching because they draw your eyes upwards towards the ceiling.

Interior cornices can also be found above bookcases, kitchen cabinets, or as window treatments. Cornices above cabinets and bookcases are often quite subtle, while a cornice above a window can be used to disguise the mechanism used to close your blinds or drapes. These cornices can be soft or hard, depending on whether they’re padded with a layer of cloth or simply a board made from timber of MDF.

External Cornices

External cornices, particularly those that project from the side of a building, are designed to protect the outside walls by casting rainwater away from the building. On residential houses, roof eaves or gutters may perform this function. But an eave is also considered a cornice if it has a decorative appearance.

What are modern cornices made of?

Modern cornices are typically made from timber and MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard), but can also be constructed from plaster, paper-covered plaster, gypsum, polyurethane, or expanded polystyrene.

Timber cornices provide a certain character in a room. They give homes an elegant, finished look, and the additional cost of using timber is offset by the natural and authentic aesthetic of the material. Timber should be properly treated to prevent shrinking or warping once installed.

MDF cornices have a gorgeously smooth finish, making them easy to paint. They don’t contain the natural grain of timber, but by using MRMDF (Moisture Resistant Medium Density Fibreboard), you avoid any risk of the moulding shrinking or warping in extreme hot and cold or damp conditions.

Most homes will maintain consistency between moulding materials used for skirting boards, architraves, and cornices. Interior designers may also match colour schemes of mouldings to create a unified look that creates an overall synergy within the home.

The History of Cornices

In classic architecture, a cornice was the top of three levels of an entablature. In Ancient Greece, an entablature would sit above a row of columns, which consisted of an architrave, the first layer, a frieze in the middle, and the cornice, the most decorative feature at the top.

In Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, cornices were also used to protect the sides of buildings by deflecting rainwater away from the building like in modern times. The decorative feature of cornices was important in demonstrating wealth and power. Cornice designs could also be used to identify family ownership of certain residences because of their uniquely uniformed styles.

An example of historic cornices.

Cornice Types / Styles

Cornices come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The size of the interior cornice will be dependant on the size of the room, and the style will mostly be based on the theme, period, or aesthetic of the other mouldings in the home.

Similar to skirting boards or architrave styles, in period homes, especially those from the Victorian era, cornices will be more elaborate and decorative, while more contemporary and modern homes with have sleeker and more basic cornice designs.
Exterior cornices are dependant on the period of the home. Modern homes may employ gutters or basic eaves to project water away from the walls, but even modern homeowners can use an external cornice to add a sense of character and flair to their home.