By Marilyn Pribus –
It’s an iconic movie moment—Our Heroine sweeping down the dramatic curving staircase toward Our Hero or the Supporting Cast of 1,000. Of course most of us don’t have a grand staircase or even any stairs at all. But if you do, here are some classy, functional, or just plain fun ideas for your new or current home.
First, the terminology. Each part is important and each can lend itself to enhancing your décor.
- The tread is the flat component you step on.
- The risers are the vertical elements between the treads.
- The balustrade is the rail system including the handrail and its supports.
- The balusters are the vertical supports between the tread and the railing.
Treads are usually made of wood and can employ a wide range of grades. Formal staircases are usually constructed from high-quality unblemished wood—often stained. For other stairs, lower quality wood is frequently used instead. The treads are sometimes stained, but more often are painted to provide uniformity for wood that may have knotholes or unmatched grains.
Treads can be completely carpeted or enhanced with a well-secured runner, which can make a statement in color or texture. The runner can also serve as a transition from more formal areas to a more casual floor. Ideally, it should be relatively easy to remove for cleaning.
The risers are the vertical components between the treads and they offer a nearly endless blank canvas for interesting decorations. Risers can be stained or painted to match or to contrast with the treads. Paint can be a uniform shade or a palette of colors or even a series of mini-murals. Ceramic tiles also make an interesting contrast to the treads.
One family replaced their risers with small shallow shelves which were just the height of paperback books. Another clever homeowner devised drawers under the cellar treads (which had no risers) for storage of seldom used items like an oversized turkey-shaped platter and ice skates. His wife painted the drawer-front risers with “blackboard” paint, then used chalk to designate the changing contents.
This system offers opportunities for a variety of decors from colonial to uber-modern. The major support posts, or newels, are generally at the bottom and top of the stairs, the middle of a long straight rise, and at the landing of a turning staircase. They must be sturdy, but can have a design from formal to whimsical. They can be of the same wood as the stairs themselves or provide a dramatic contrast. The handrail may also be decorative, but must be easy for people to grasp.
These vertical supports provide an excellent place for interesting décor, but remember to check building codes for the required distance between individual balusters for the safety of children.
Balusters are frequently made of wood, often “turned” to create interesting patterns, but pipes or panels can also be used. Other options might be rustic wood, stylish wooden panels, or welded metal. One dwelling had welded balusters with the shapes of branches complete with leaves.
In some cases, see-through panels of Plexiglas or smoked safety glass can replace traditional supports, lending a sense of openness. Balusters can also be replaced with floor-to-ceiling installations of rope, pipe, wood strips, or cables.
Mini Art Gallery
The wall beside the stairs is a prime spot for displaying artwork or photos. It’s often the perfect location for a particularly large piece of art or a selection of various shapes and sizes. It’s also a great spot to display a collection such as flower prints or children’s art. One homeowner displayed dozens of antique automobile license plates climbing the wall.
Check the internet for clever presentations. Some have identical frames and matting while others unify a collection of different sizes and shapes with uniformly colored frames. This could also be a place for very shallow shelves for books or mementoes.
Depending on the layout of a staircase, the space beneath it can offer functional options. It could house a coat closet or even a powder room, particularly if it is reasonably close to plumbing connections. There might also be space for a stackable washer and dryer combination, again with nearby plumbing.
A special hideaway for the kids is another great way to use space under the stairway since they don’t need a lot of headroom. Just provide carpeting, small shelves for seating and storage, some lighting and good ventilation. The space might even have a child-height door or a “hidden” entrance provided by a swing-out panel.
Finally, the area under many stairways offers extra storage space. This could be simple open shelves or cubbies for family members. A tidier but more expensive option is built-in cupboards with doors or drawers.
One interior designer drew up plans for roll-out shelves faced with panels which, from the outside, appear to be a plain wall. The three-foot-deep shelves provide generous storage and, when pulled out, give good access to the short units at the lower part of the stairs and to the back end of all the shelves.
Stairs don’t just go up and down. With some imagination they can offer drama, extra functionality, and additional storage in your home.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in an Albemarle County home with no stairs at all, but when she was a little girl in upstate New York, she had a “fort” under the cellar steps.