Focussing on staircase ideas is a key part of modern home design. After all, in a traditional multi-level home, the staircase is often smack dab in the middle. Why not make it an architectural wonder, a statement, a piece of the decor that sets the tone for the overall scheme?
“I think that the staircase is the statement of how the rest of the house will feel and flow, so it's importance is at the top of the list,” says interior designer Christy Dillard Kratzer. “It is the first impression someone has as soon as they walk through the front door.”
Sure, the staircase is often a transition space, used to get from one floor to another. While most homeowners don’t spend much time there, especially their children, who might skip stairs altogether on their way up and down. But for interior designers, it’s an opportunity for a show-stopping moment.
In fact, according to Blair Moore, founder of Moore House Design, you should think of the staircase as the sculpture to your home. “This is what fuels the cohesion of the space and is the most dramatic element within your home,” she says. “I love thinking of staircases as almost an artist's sculpture. What elements can you intertwine into it that tie both the design of the multiple floors together.”
Ready to take your staircase to new heights? Take a look below to see how interior designers are making staircases next-level in modern homes.
1. Use a runner to bring in pattern
Incorporating a runner is a traditional choice for several reasons: the carpet will reduce noise for those with heavy footsteps while also creating a soft surface for foot traffic. And, for those hoping to up the ante, it also turns your staircase into a surprisingly long canvas for pattern. Pick the right runner and you can make traditional patterns feel modern, like this checkered runway above.
"By their very nature [staircases] are often centrally located and can break up a space, so instead of hiding or disappearing the stairs, we love to celebrate them," says designer Susannah Holmberg (opens in new tab). The black-and-white pattern, paired with a modern pink paint, gives this space the depth and attention it deserves. "We opted to paint the balustrades black and add the checkered runner to bring out an edgier nature to the pink," adds Holmberg. "In the same vein, we chose the photograph, whose dark background and arresting image help elevate the color palette, to something more refined."
2. Upholster your treads like a 'sofa'
While you can install a traditional runner and make it modern, why not break outside the box by upholstering select treads? Like color-blocking your stairs, it adds variation and softness while staying modern and original.
In the renovated barn above, connected to a 1700s cottage in Maine, Blair Moore of Moore House Design (opens in new tab) added an inspired new approach to this age-old interior. In addition to installing driftwood around the staircase and basing the palette in lime plaster walls, Moore covered entire treads in vintage rugs to round out the space. “We created the upholstered treads before even constructing the rest of the staircase,” says Moore. “I knew I wanted them to feel like a newly upholstered sofa.”
Pro tip: if you’re hoping to install a similar heirloom rug for a one-of-a-kind treatment, plan ahead. “Measure carefully, and give yourself some extra slack,” says Georgia Hoyler, the owner of Passerine (opens in new tab), which sources handmade vintage rugs (including the one pictured above). “If seeking a vintage runner for the stairs, it is important to give yourself a good bit of wiggle room when sourcing a runner (or runners, plural!) for the overall length of the stairwell. Aim for at least 10-15% overage.”
3. Update your stairs with a modern palette
What to do with an old, tired wooden staircase? While you could gut the space and install a whole new design entirely, you can also transform the architecture with a modern color palette that contrasts original wood grains with newer color themes (like a neutral color scheme).
In the above brownstone, Merrill Lyons of Brooklyn's Lyons Studio (opens in new tab) created brilliant contrast by keeping select wooden detailing exposed (like the restored newel post and handrail) while updating a bulk of the remaining architecture with a fresh paint color. "It took a lot of work to get it to the point of looking the way it does now and careful editing of what remained a wood tone and what we were going to paint," says Lyons. "We felt that painting the spindles and wainscotting in fact allowed you to better appreciate all the woodwork in a brighter more modern way, and leaving the newel posts and railings in their stripped back wood tone helped round out the historic feel."
4. Treat old stairs to a monochromatic coverup
5. Install a sculptural landing
Landings aren’t always top of mind, save for a piece of art or a small piece of furniture. But if you’re hoping to give your staircase some serious wow-factor, a show-stopping base – like the marble landing above – can double as a work of art.
The concept, a custom-made and oversized slab of green marble at the foot of the steps, was a collaborative design between the homeowner and Rachel Bullock, a founding partner of Los Angeles’ LAUN (opens in new tab). “He picked the marble and commissioned LA sculptor Ramon Byrne to create the piece,” says Bullock, noting that this specific stairwell leads to the primary bedroom. “The stairwell itself is more neutral with white walls and natural white oak steps but the marble step really marks the transition into the couple’s private space and adds a textural, sculptural element to the immersive color environment created in the bedroom (which is painted in a custom high gloss green by Benjamin Moore).”
Taking it one step further, you can also take an old set of stairs to new heights with a monochromatic paint scheme. This works two ways: painting in one color helps even unsightly staircases blend into their surroundings (the right paint ideas will cover up pretty much any eyesore), and it will also modernize the entire aesthetic of the staircase all in one.
In order to transform the wooden staircase above, Blair Moore of Moore House Design went bold, opting for a moody grey paint that covers every inch of the staircase, right down to the treads. “For me the eye needs to rest and breathe,” explains Moore. “Painting a staircase one color if it's not a stunning staircase design really helps sooth the eye and to help transition from one floor to the next.”
6. Give a modern spin to classic spindles
While traditional staircases get much of their character from wooden spindles, get inspired by industrial interior design by using materials like glass and metal. In the home above, clean lines are achieved with steel balusters topped with thin wooden handrails; the strong yet lean vertical spindles give the space a sense of height while keeping the entire entryway light and airy.
“Our client's staircase is at the center of their home and the first thing you see upon entry so we needed something special,” says LA-based interior designer Jaqui Seerman (opens in new tab). “Here, the unique stair railing design creates dramatic vignettes of light throughout the space and provides a tasteful architectural backdrop for an entry that includes a beautiful vintage Italian table, antique rug, and fresh flowers.”
7. Make your staircase stand out with a bright accent
Throughout modern homes, accent wall ideas are perfect for injecting interiors with bold color and personality. You can apply the same concept to nearly any surface of your staircase – whether you’re accenting your treads, risers, walls, or railings. In the above interior, a yellow railing creates a brilliant pop of color that brings a contemporary edge to a reimagined farmhouse.
“The split-level nature of the home’s design features the staircase as the primary circulation space both horizontally and vertically through the space,” says Andrew Lefkowitz of BarlisWedlick (opens in new tab). “The railing design was conceived as a set of sliding planes placed between the flights of the stair to accentuate that movement. The vibrant color choice was used to highlight this feature; letting it stand out against other materials in the home while also referencing design choices in the adjacent barn, which features a similarly vibrant stair railing.”
8. Mix up your materials
If you’re considering a larger renovation, don’t stop at the stairs – build a rich and layered look by varying the materials used across the walls, ceiling, and surfaces surrounding your staircase. In the rustic-meets-modern interior above, a convincing use of reclaimed cypress (for both the flooring and ceiling beams) creates immediate contrast with the steel staircase while the walls and ceilings take it one step further.
“The shiplap walls and tongue and groove ceiling in the space complement the beautiful staircase by adding a crisp, but relaxed, vibe to the space,” says Atlanta-based Christy Dillard Kratzer (opens in new tab) of CDK Interior Design, who worked with architects Pritchett + Dixon (opens in new tab) on the above interior. “The horizontal lines of the shiplap, mixed with the vertical lines of the beams plus the angle of the staircase railing all add the perfect visual interest to the space. The mixture of the materials, sleek and rustic – smooth and textured, are what make this unique staircase space.”
9. Install a custom handrail
Like jewelry for your staircase, handrails – the only other tactile element beyond the stairs themselves – can change the entire look and feel of your space. In the interior above, what looks like wooden pipe railing is actually an entirely different material comfort: it's covered in leather.
Coupled with a modern mix of textures and surfaces, the custom leather handrail creates a soft touch to the fully modern interior design. “I love the tactile leather handrail, the transition from concrete floors to wood and the feeling of walking up into this light filled expansive space,” says designer Katie Martinez.
10. Pick hanging art with height
For an unexpected design moment, staircases offer a surprisingly large canvas for hanging art in your home. While even a standard framed artwork will create visual interest on the wall above your steps, select pieces of art can change the entire experience of climbing the stairs by highlighting the architecture's height.
This was the case in the Nantucket home above, where architects used art that guides you through (or up) the space. “As a practice, we think a lot about liminal spaces — hallways, staircases, and other transitional areas in a home — and the way people experience them,” says Andrew Kotchen, founding principal, Workshop/APD (opens in new tab). “This custom art installation was designed to activate the space, create engagement and interest and complement the staircase’s architectural details, making even the movement between floors and rooms meaningful.”
11. Be striking with period details
In this elegantly modern home in LA, design studio LALA Reimagined were lucky enough to find this balustrade still here from when the house was built. Straight out of the Hollywood Regency era, it sweeps impressively up from the entryway.
'The staircase was original to the house, but brown,' designer Azar Fattahi says. 'We painted it black to make it reminiscent of Jean Royere.'
The chairs are from The Future Perfect, and were chosen for their sculptural form to greet you as soon as you arrive in the home. 'We find focal moments have more impact when they are not expected,' Azar's design partner Lia McNairy says.
12. Use your staircase to add color and drama
The design was inspired by the floating red “Staircase-III” by Doh Ho Suh, exhibited at the Tate Modern.
Collaborating with Diapo and Webb Yates Engineers, Michaelis Boyd's team created this unique sculptural staircase, made from perforated red steel and floating above the living room floor. “With this staircase we wanted to create a statement piece that was both sculptural and functional,” architect Alex Michaelis says.
13. Curve metal into a striking spiral
In an open plan warehouse-style home, creating a large, central centerpiece is a way to add real design flair.
Here, the double-height staircase became an instant focal point in this Hackney home. Its metal balustrade is created from curved sheet steel, with floating treads stopping it from appearing too heavy. There’s a flush leather handrail, too.
14. Use paint to fake a stair runner
15. Use the treads to inject a pop of bright color
Using yellow has become one of the boldest and best interior design trends of recent years. Its sunny disposition provides an instant lift, and where better to do this than on the staircase?
Here, in a converted school building, a lemon-yellow staircase connects what were once two individual flats. The yellow shade refreshes and energises the space, and makes for a bright and cheerful apartment.
16. Use floating treads to let light into lower levels
The curved staircase in this artist's mews house curls up to the first floor bedrooms, and down to the basement studio.
Floating treads mean that light can come in via the skylight at the top of the stairs, and trickle all the way down to basement level.
Similarly, with no windows at the rear, this mews house needed creative solutions to filter in light. This floating staircase design draws in sunlight from higher floors and skylights through the use of open treads. The choice of blonde timber for the steps further lightens the space throughout.
17. Illuminate steps with recessed lights or spotlights
A sculptural and sweeping staircase takes centre stage in this ultra-modern Victorian terrace townhouse in west London.
The treads are illuminated with recessed lights that shine through slits in the curved walls. The staircase design was inspired by a Barbara Hepworth sculpture called 'Pelagos'.
18. Create a recessed hand rail
The central staircase in this former London hospital was one of the most important features of architect Stuart Robertson’s design.
Aside from it's sumptuous shape, it features other striking design tricks too – including a recessed hand rail.
19. Contrast a light palette and soft shapes with a metal bannister
A modern and minimalist metal banister adds crisp black lines and a modern contrast in this detached Edwardian home in Buckinghamshire.
The bottom of the stairs is smooth, white and twisted like a piece of sculpture, while the banister stretches up to merge with the upper banister, creating a taller barrier for safety while also letting in plenty of light.
20. Strengthen a floating staircase with a metal spine
A dramatic, floating staircase punctuates the main entrance of this chic, monochrome penthouse in Boston.
A glass banister follows the treads up to the upper landing, while cascading strings of lights hang down the stairwell, adding further drama.
Aside from giving the floating treads strength and support, the metal spine also creates a dramatic, skeletal-like shape.
21. Use a suspended staircase to play with atrium style spaces
The layout of this converted warehouse is centered around a birch plywood clad suspended staircase in the triple height void. The dramatic design can be viewed from above, below, and even from across the mezzanine floors.
22. Don't forget the ceiling
The original staircase in this period home in Hackney (same as featured above) was preserved, leading up to the bedrooms. To make the staircase modern, the ceiling was given a smooth curve.
Meanwhile in this reconfigured flat in Hampstead, the architects turned a design problem into a creative feature.
The key to unlocking the potential of this property was installing a staircase which worked with the building. The first section of the staircase rises to a lower landing, turning right underneath the chimney stack and left into a new staircase rising to the upper floor. This clever reduction in the landing height allowed for space to walk under the chimney and created a beautiful feature that is the talking point with all guests.
23. Add zest with a block color staircase
24. Mix and match contrasting shades for a more unexpected look
You wouldn't usually consider the staircase as a way of injecting a pop of color, but as this candy colored home in Islington proves, it can be a very fun and effective way of introducing a contrast colour.
Canary yellow, bubblegum pink and navy blue sit unexpectedly but harmoniously together.
25. Use smooth plaster and a slim frame to inject modern Scandi vibes
By using slender bannisters that gently bend at the beginning of the stairs, this modern staircase design sings with elegance and offers a lightness further complemented by the natural wood banister. Using a deep first step is another clever touch, as it has the effect of leading upwards, creating a seamless sense of movement and flow.
26. Make an entrance with a suspended design
When a staircase forms part of a living space, an architectural design acts as a focal point rather than just a practical object. The staircase below is open and is seemingly suspended.
The use of thin balustrades and the addition of white underfoot add a forgiving sense of lightness to the large structure.
27. Highlight the twist of the inner banister
This design uses a sweeping staircase to create a feature, and uses the gentle curve of the base of the steps above to add a feeling of continuous space. An integrated banister in sleek wood enhances the curves.
28. Incorporate storage in the treads in compact homes
Architect David Money came up with this clever solution for book storage. Utilixing the plywood staircase, he built a library into the dead space between each tread.
29. Incorporate fitted storage
This original iron staircase used to be part of a former newspaper printing house. It leads up to the roof terrace, and has been outfitted with custom walnut storage by RJ Millworkers that conceals a TV and toys.
30. Clad a suspended staircase in aluminium panelling for a clean look
A modern staircase that’s clad in extruded aluminium panelling cuts through this double height converted power plant in Copenhagen, while bedrooms at mezzanine level feature floor to ceiling glass walls, offering views into the cavernous space below.
31. Dangle modern pendant lighting down the centre stairwell
A multi-tiered light that transcends all three floors adds drama to this stunning Connecticut home, while the simple design and monochrome scheme has a sophisticated, elegant effect.
32. Achieve a rustic effect with exposed timber treads
This 17th-century former mill in Gloucestershire throws out the design rulebook and is a masterpiece in contemporary meets classic design. Interior designer Nia Morris (opens in new tab) worked with architect Richard Parr to create the dramatic entrance. The sleek balustrade works beautifully with the exposed timber treads.
33. Give a subtle nod to famous designs
This staircase was conceived as a sculpture to be looked at and a stage to be seen on. The overall appearance alludes to the fantastical in infinity Penrose stairs made famous by the lithographs of Escher. Beata Heuman has added to the effect with simple ‘Pernell’ pendant lights from Arteriors that mimic the balustrades without competing with its visual impact.
34. Give modern architecture satisfyingly smooth curves
A delicate ribbon of polished plaster, this smooth staircase ties this ultra-modern Victorian terrace townhouse (opens in new tab) together.
35. Contrast metal with organic materials for an eye-catching look
This custom black sculptural steel staircase was created by Studio David Thulstrup. The black staircase stands light yet stringent in a contrast to the adjacent wood-cladded wall.
The wood cladded wall draws the viewers’ attention upwards, where the light influx from the second floor creates a play of light and shadows on the semi-cylindrical wood cladding, offering warmth and texture that contrasts the raw concrete flooring.
36. Use black accents to frame a vignette
Dark banisters offer a dramatic line that zigzags through the house. The stairs are framed by these tall and wide steel doors that help open up the ground-floor space, flooding it with light.
37. For basement staircases, stick to glass and light, open designs
Basement access is often from the front, so you usually have stairs under stairs. In order to help make the basement feel part of the house, the stairs are in the middle of the ground floor and sit on dainty legs with glass balustrades. This was crucial in order to bring in lots of light.
Keith Flanagan is a New York based journalist specialising in design, food and travel. He has been an editor at Time Out New York, and has written for such publications as Architectural Digest, Conde Nast Traveller, Food 52 and USA Today. He regularly contributes to Livingetc, reporting on design trends and offering insight from the biggest names in the US. His intelligent approach to interiors also sees him as an expert in explaining the different disciplines in design.
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