The aesthetic qualities of the humble staircase are too often underrated, says Luke Rix-Standing.
Something of a no-man’s land within the home, it’s easy to see why staircases are so often overlooked on the interior style front. Rarely more than a means of getting from A to B, why would you choose to spend time and money on stairs, when it could instead be spent on key living spaces elsewhere?
But these thoroughfares inevitably see high footfall and are important for safety as well as style – and even if it’s not your first thought when planning your decor, they do have a big visual impact too.
So, with this in mind, apartment dwellers and bungalow owners look away now – here’s how to make sure your stairs work well for both eyes and feet…
First things first, it’s important to keep in mind that the run-of-the-mill staircase can be one of the most dangerous obstacles you negotiate during your day. According to statistics, there is a fall on Britain’s staircases approximately every 90 seconds, while staircase-related incidents account for roughly 250,000 trips to A&E every year.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a checklist of conditions to help you practice safe stairs, asserting that they should be well-lit, have handrails at appropriate heights, have good ‘slip resistance properties’, and be free of trip hazards.
The ‘nosing’ of a step (aka the edge), should be well-defined and ideally square, to stop the stairs blurring into one. Just as important is consistency, as research has shown that even small variations in angle or distance between steps can cause a topple.
Those with small children face an obvious extra risk, and baby gates are a must for both the top and bottom. Do not attempt to vault the gate out of laziness – it’s ironically common for adults to injure themselves by misusing gates put in place to protect their kids.
Of course, structural changes only go so far, and human factors play a determining role in most stair-related incidents. Residents are far more at risk if they’re rushing, distracted, or carrying heavy loads without a free hand to grab the rail or banister.
Step up the style
Now that we’ve got function and safety out of the way, we can turn our attentions to fashion. The staircase may not seem a natural place for prize pieces of art, but, like your bathroom or loo, it’s a quick way of making sure everybody sees your carefully-chosen pieces. Try to limit yourself to small decorations like miniature frames or photos, and line them up gallery-style at the same gradient as the stairs.
As with all constricted areas, your biggest challenge is creating a sense of space. Avoid claustrophobic dark colours where possible, and use a lighter shade on walls and ceilings to help draw the eye upwards.
As with any space, mirrors provide the illusion of depth, and don’t be afraid to go big on the lighting. Utilise ‘accent’ lighting – focused light sources creating contrast – rather than a solitary overhead bulb (just remember those safety rules!). The result should be less subterranean tunnel, more breezy indoor boulevard.
As for the stairs themselves, your main allies are the risers – the vertical slats between each step. You can apply wallpaper, paint them to match the walls, or pattern them to match your lower floor.
For those wedded to quirk, you can fashion your steps as piano keys, book spines, or bands of the rainbow. Just be sure to consider the look from every angle before laying down your first brushstroke – no one wants a staircase that looks like a work of art from the ground floor, and a cubist mess from the first.
Otherwise, carpets remains the most popular add-on. Option number one is full carpeting: 100% coverage of a stairway that can obscure unsightly surfaces but can be comparatively complex and costly to install.
Option number two is to use carpet runners – a wide strip of carpet running down the centre of the stairs, held in place with slim poles affixed to the join between riser and tread. Cheaper and simpler than full carpeting, generally speaking, the different textures can fit really well into a broader aesthetic.
Starting from scratch
Of course, if you’re overseeing major structural renovations, you may have the chance to design your staircases anew. We’re not going to delve into the engineering – that depends entirely on the specs of your dwelling – but there are a few styles finding particular prominence in modern homes.
For space-starved householders, consider the spiral staircase – an aesthetic, self-contained unit that can easily be erected in the corner of the room. So-called ‘floating staircases’ are increasingly popular in modern minimalist homes – isolated blocks without risers protruding straight out of the wall. They’re obviously not as stable as their banister-ed cousins, and are not for those with uncertain step (i.e. large swathes of the population).
We can’t imagine many houses will have room for grand medieval stairwells, but you can still channel a country house aesthetic with elaborate hand rails and metalwork panelling.
For the very chicest in staircase design, consider installing light sources – under-lit bulbs that emit a warm glow from beneath the tread. These not only look lovely during the long winter evenings, they may also stop you coming a cropper when you get up to go to the loo.