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Why Your Staircase Shouldn’t be Tired and Dull


Your staircase may not get as much attention as other spaces in your home, like your kitchen and living room, but it should. A beautiful stairwell can tie your home together and make moving from one level to another a pleasure.

“It shouldn’t be tired and dull,” said Fawn Galli, a New York-based interior designer. “It should be this magical kind of space you move through.”

Philip Mitchell, an interior designer based in Toronto, said stairwells are among his favorite spaces to design: “Whether they’re contemporary, traditional or somewhere in between, they’re the best location to have the most fun, and to really put somebody’s personality on display.”

Because staircases are often front and center when guests walk through the front door, but aren’t spaces where you spend a lot of time, “you have the opportunity to do something really interesting,” Mr. Mitchell said, without worrying much about whether it will be visually overwhelming.

Ms. Galli, Mr. Mitchell and other designers shared ideas for updating your stairs.

If you have a wooden staircase you want to update, paint is one of the easiest, most affordable ways to make a big change. Common techniques are to paint the whole staircase a single color or to use two contrasting colors for the stair treads (the horizontal parts) and the risers (the vertical parts). But it’s also possible to do something more striking.

To update a staircase in a house in Cornwall, Conn., Ms. Galli painted the treads blue and the risers white, then added a strip of inky black extending up the center like a painted runner. “We wanted to make it feel stylish, thoughtful and important,” she said. “It creates a sense of place, even though it’s a transitional moment.”

Other options include painting each riser with a progressively lighter shade of the same color, to give the staircase an ombré look; using stencils to add patterns, letters or numbers to risers; or, if you’re artistically inclined, creating a custom pattern or arrangement of stripes that’s painted freehand or masked with painter’s tape.

Pasting wallpaper over drywall is an easy way to give a stairwell a different expression, but the same material can be used in various ways. Mark D. Sikes, a Los Angeles-based designer, enlivened one stairwell by framing strips of Gracie hand-painted wallpaper with molding, creating the look of a paneled wall.

“There wasn’t the budget to do hand-painted wallpaper throughout the whole entryway,” Mr. Sikes said. “So the alternative we came up with — which was also very fun — was taking some panels and framing them to create some interest and define the color palette.”

Shelly Lynch-Sparks, the founder of Hyphen & Co., a New York-based interior design firm, once applied wallpaper not just to the stair risers in a house in Mattituck, N.Y., but also to the ceiling above. “It added a layer to the space that was just a little bit unexpected,” Ms. Lynch-Sparks said. “You see it from pretty much every point in the house.”

If you’re going to add wallpaper to your stair risers, she recommended choosing a product made from a durable material, like the commercial-grade vinyl wallpaper she used in Mattituck.

“If you look at most risers, they’re scuffed up,” she said. “So you want to make sure you’re using a high-grade wallpaper” that won’t be easily destroyed by foot traffic.

If you’re tempted to wallpaper your stair risers but are worried about wear and tear, another option is to use ceramic tile. When Mr. Sikes recently designed a Mediterranean-style house in Los Angeles, he added blue-and-white Portuguese ceramic tile across the risers of the main staircase, just inside the front door. On the wall beside the stairs, he installed small shelves holding blue-and-white ceramic vases, which introduce a color scheme repeated throughout the house.

“The tiles are really beautiful and relate to the dining room and the big great room,” Mr. Sikes said.

A stair runner — a strip of carpeting that runs up the middle of the staircase — does more than just change the look of the steps. It also provides comfort and grip underfoot, and can dampen sound.

Carpeting with a solid color, simple pattern or heavily textured material like sisal can make a ho-hum staircase look more luxurious. But you don’t necessarily have to play it safe.

“I like them to be fun,” said Ms. Galli, who frequently installs stair runners in her projects. “The wilder, the better.”

In one home, she installed a runner from the Rug Company with a pattern by Diane von Furstenberg depicting large-scale leopards. In another, she installed a runner with a design featuring a school of fish. In yet another, she installed one with a black line running up the middle, fading to blue at the edges.

“A pattern or just a sharp color can make it amusing, chic and fun,” Ms. Galli said.

One of Mr. Mitchell’s favorite decorative moves is to fill a stairwell with art from top to bottom, stretching from the stair treads to the ceiling. “We do a gallery wall up the staircase,” he said.

If you want to do the same, he recommended making all other elements — the wall paint, stair runner and handrail — as neutral and visually quiet as possible. Then take stock of the art you have to hang.

“We usually start with the major pieces — the largest ones in the collection — and decide what our focal points will be,” he said.

Usually, the largest pieces will go at the top or bottom of a stairwell, or on a landing, he said. Then he’ll fill in the wall around those pieces with smaller works. Framed paintings and prints are most common, but Mr. Mitchell sometimes uses objects, as well. In his second home in Nova Scotia, he adorned a stairwell with decorative fish plates on plate hangers. For another project, he mounted a small shelf holding sculptural ceramic vases at a landing, within a larger wall of paintings.

If you’re renovating your home, you have the opportunity to make more dramatic changes to a staircase. Whether you decide to rebuild the whole staircase or just change some of the components, the options for customization are endless, said Caleb Johnson, an architect based in Portland, Maine: “If you’re doing an architecturally significant stair, it’s got hundreds of parts.”

One of the most arresting ways of updating a staircase is to replace the handrail and balusters. Instead of using traditional wooden spindles, for instance, you could build a guardrail with lengths of tensioned metal cable or panes of tempered glass. Mr. Johnson sometimes makes custom metal baluster panels that are fastened to wood stairs with screws. Other times, he opts for wooden handrails with beautifully crafted curves, occasionally pairing them with uncommon metalwork or a modern newel post.

Mr. Mitchell, the Toronto designer, once did something even simpler to build a custom handrail: He strung a thick rope through metal wall-mounted brackets.

Overhauling a staircase, or even part of a staircase, is an opportunity to be creative, but it’s important to be aware of local building codes, which dictate many requirements, including the maximum allowable space between balusters and the circumference of the handrail.

Within those rules, however, there’s still plenty of room to play. As Mr. Johnson noted, “You should always look for moments where, rather than marching along with the way you’ve always done things, you can celebrate things in a different way than what’s expected.”

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