Stairs, like hallways, are pass-throughs, a means of getting from one space to another — more specifically, from one level to another. Not that they can’t be handsome — even drop-dead — architecturally. Think about those magazine beauty shots that show elegant circular stairs shot from the top looking down or from the ground looking up, often to fanciful skylights or chandeliers.
But most stairs are, well, pretty generic: wood in natural stains or painted, dressed perhaps by fancier rails, newel posts or spindles.
For those who dare, however, stairs are superb candidates for decorating. The kind of decorating that pops. Engages. Makes all the design difference in a space.
“One thing we like to do as designers is to take spaces that are overlooked and make them marvelous,” says Jason Oliver Nixon, partner with John Loecke in the firm Madcap Cottage. “Why should a stairway just be a means to an end? Why not make it a journey?”
Nixon and Loecke have painted, stenciled and installed runners that convert stairs from “mundane to wow.”
“Some clever design tricks actually make some houses appear to be much larger,” says Nixon. “When a stairway becomes a room, there’s a sense of progression and the pace of a home changes.”
There are plenty of ways to step up the look of stairs. One of the easiest is with runners, often a dress-up, finishing touch, not to mention a way to acoustically soften and cozy the surface underfoot. The safest route is with traditional applications — Oriental, small-scale floral or quiet geometric styles, more often than not in subdued hues. Or solid neutrals with borders, either tone-on-tone or contrasting.
When Renee deVignier Biery, a Wilmington, Del., designer, took on a spacious foyer she opted for a cohesive strategy, one that involved custom designs for a pair of area rugs anchored by bold medallions with fretwork borders and a running mate on the stairs echoing those bands. A happy shade of high-gloss coral walls is set off with white moldings and vibrant cobalt blue accent in a collection of vintage Chinese-export porcelain displayed in a built-in cupboard. So for the wool-tipped sheared carpets, all the key hues are brought into play. The fretwork was sparked by the Chinese Chippendale design, often used in needlepoint.
But consider for your stairs a stroke of edginess. A kicky stripe. A flamboyant megawatt floral. Dazzling color! Instantly, the plain staircase morphs into a spectacular focal point.
More of the less-buttoned-up looks tend to be less formal. A blue-and-white awning stripe, for example, has a beachy, cottagey vibe. A loomed flat-cotton weave, such as one available from the Dash & Albert rug company, lends a casual, sporty look. On the other hand, a microhooked wool runner splashed with larger-than-life blooms brings in the garden in a totally unpredictable way.
Painting a staircase can dramatically alter its personality. When wood isn’t necessarily distinguishing enough in grain or color to spotlight, designers often opt for painting stairs out in black, matte or lacquer finish. It’s a simple, elegant look, often contrasted with white risers and spindles. Off-white or a color brightens a space, especially with a robust divergence in wall color.
Try an ombre effect — yes, like the hair-color trend that gradates from dark roots to lighter ends, using the several shades of the same color on a paint chip. Or you can create the effect of a runner with paint, even with a bit of pattern, such as a stripe. Paint companies such as Pratt & Lambert and Benjamin Moore, among others, like to show the kinds of options possible and offer pointers on finishes designed for durability.