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 Wilmington, Del.-based designer Renee deVignier Biery 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.
These days, some homeowners are getting a bigger rise out of the risers themselves. This is not unusual in the Southwest or in countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Greece and Turkey, where decorative tiles often are installed on the non-tread parts of stairs. No matter what the background -- terra cotta or white stucco -- ebullient patterns, usually strong geometrics or stylized florals, positively pop and add to the architecture even in the plainest of applications.
Tile in sizes close to the height of the risers effectively frames its entire pattern. But smaller scale, even mosaics can work. We've seen mosaics in iridescent hues, such as watery blue greens, that add unexpected luster. Mirrored mosaics lend a glam vibe, in the same way silver and gold leaf do on ceilings.
Patterns on risers are especially dramatic when the backdrop is simple, clean and modern. One of the most striking catalog covers in recent years is from Serena & Lily, a home decor site with a retail store in the Hamptons. The company is known especially for its fabrics and bedding. In an all-white setting -- stairs, railings, wainscoting and walls -- designers cut from lengths of eight different graphically patterned fabrics in a palette of deep blue and white, one with vivid accents of coral, and adhered them to risers. Effect: totally original and artistic.
So the DIY quotient, not surprisingly, has ramped up and an amazing range of creativity, often with results posted on Pinterest or websites like Houzz (www.houzz.com) or Apartment Therapy (www.apartmenttherapy.com). One posting of a creative spruce-up featured four different modern patterned wallcoverings left over from projects. The homeowner, Vancouver designer Jennifer Scott, took it a step further: She added vintage address numbers as a whimsical way for her daughter to interact with the space while learning to count. One tip: Scott used double-stick tape instead of glue.
Or check out removable wallcoverings, which some call "slipcovers for walls." Libby Langdon's Chic Chevron pattern for Casart Coverings (www.casartcoverings.com) is an attention grabber. It comes in sailor blue, totally teal, orange fire and silver gray. Brewster's WallPops (www.wallpops.com), especially the "happy chic, groovy graphic " designs from Jonathan Adler, also would rock the risers.
Clever installs include using leftover patterned linoleum, chalkboard paint, house numbers, decals, text (from inspirational quotes to Bible passages to just funny stuff), and even metal grates. Years ago, some magazines featured the use of anaglypta as a riser cover. The embossed patterns, which come in a range of motifs, mimic tin ceiling tiles often employed at the dawn of the 20th century. Come to think of it, you could actually cut vintage tins to fit.
Nailheads could be another cool, fashion-inspired idea, one replicating the studs so prevalent on handbags, shoes and leather jackets. Several years back, one imaginative woman took a bottle cap collection in a rainbow of colors and painstakingly applied them in perfect rows to risers, a look that well suited her eclectic Arts and Crafts-style Chicago home.
One craft gaining a lot of attention is stenciling, mostly because companies such as Royal Design Studio are providing stunning patterns, and dishing plenty of how-to advice. Whether it's simply black on white or complex combinations of colors that really resemble those multicolored ethnic ceramic or concrete tiles, the possibilities are pretty much limitless when you factor in your fave color schemes.
Pretty much the sky's the limit, from smart tailored motifs to bling-y to pop and from op-art graphics to rustic, country or elegant traditional. Heck, you could even go a little romantic with an old-fashioned hydrangea floral or even a toile.
Put on a happy stair face. As long as the colors and patterns complement spaces in the same ZIP code, it should be a stairway to style.
-- Benjamin Moore, 855-724-6802, www.benjaminmoore.com
-- Dash & Albert Rug Co., 800-658-5035, www.dashandalbert.com
-- deVignier Design, 302-652-3490, www.devignierdesign.com
-- Farrow & Ball, 888-511-1121, us.farrow-ball.com
-- Madcap Cottage, 917-513-9143, www.madcapcottage.com
-- Royal Design Studio Stencils, 800-747-9767, www.royaldesignstudio.com
-- Vives Ceramica: for the very latest information, visit Tile of Spain USA, 305-446-4387, www.tileofspainusa.com
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