The staircase is the spine of the house but its functionality means that its aesthetics are often overlooked. That is changing with a new generation of innovative designs. In some radical cases, slides are included in the design, usurping the staircase’s downward function. After all, why bother with putting one foot in front of the other when a slide will glide you from one floor to the next in seconds?
The Skyhouse occupies the upper floors of a 19th-century New York tower, which had never been lived in before. Architect David Hotson reconfigured the interior to include a glazed attic, high ceilings and a huge slide made from polished stainless steel. Visitors can take a yellow cashmere blanket from the pile at the top at the slide to speed their journey to the bottom. On the third floor there is a landing with access to bedrooms allowing sliders to stop and get out or continue down to the ground floor.
While slides create dramatic effect, architects and designers are also working hard to change the image of the staircase – “sculpture’s gift to architecture”, according to architect Alex de Rijke. Increasingly imaginative, colourful and dramatic versions are taking centre stage.
Ab Rogers (son of architect Richard Rogers), who designed the Rainbow House in west London for a private client, says a staircase is an opportunity to create a piece of art within a building. He built a multicoloured spiral version in this house along with a slide.
“The stairs were very tight and the slide was a counterpoint to that. When I lived there for six months, I used it every day. It doubled up as a laundry chute too.
“A staircase is a piece of industrial design with very precise requirements; it needs to make the journey from upstairs to downstairs as interesting as possible.”
Richard McLane, design director at Bisca, says the trend towards open-plan living means the staircase has become more important in the home.
“These days it’s visible from other areas of the property so it has to look good as well as be functional.
“In addition to that, space is often at a premium and designers have to maximise the illusion of light and openness, incorporate storage and work around room entrances and exits.”
Jonas Lencer, studio director at de Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects (dRMM), whose company has just created an Escher-like endless staircase to demonstrate the possibilities of timber construction, says stairs have been ignored for many years but adds that their importance to the rest of the house should not be underestimated.
“In the middle ages, the stairs were an indication of what the rest of the house would be like. It used to be something to show off and give visitors an idea of what to expect elsewhere in the property. It’s also the one place in the house where you get to see other parts from different angles and perspectives. You can create different views and, if there are windows, it can be a mediator between the inside and outside.”
Lencer is an advocate of opening up the space around a staircase: “It shouldn’t be boarded up with banisters and walls around it – that’s like putting it in a coffin. It should be opened up.”
Of course not everyone can afford the expense and upheaval of ripping out a staircase to install a new one from scratch. But Nick Burborough of Zigzag Design studio, who is building a Gaudi-esque bridge to link two mezzanines in a house in Bibury, in Gloucestershire, says the weak economy, which has led to more people staying put rather than moving house, has resulted in more stair “facelifts”.
“It’s a big rising trend. More and more clients want to lift their stairs without the headache and financial hit of a complete replacement,” he says.
“The staircase is the biggest single structure in a house and it’s often the first thing you see when you come in. If the kitchen is the heart of the home then the staircase is the main artery through which everything flows.
“If you are updating, consider the balustrade. Sculptural metal is very much the trend at the moment. Carved spindles can turn a dreary staircase into something magnificent.
“We are doing many more spindles in copper and bronze. You can use the staircase to create a real splash of ornate decor in an otherwise minimal space.”
Burborough says materials such as mirror, metal and steel are fashionable in the modern staircase. “Stairs have generally been either light or dark timber, steel powder-coated or stainless steel with a brushed finish and glass, but clients are a lot more adventurous now. We have done a lot of bronze and patinated brass with bright polished aluminium.”
Other tricks include cladding the riser (the vertical piece at the back of the tread/step) in mirror to create the impression of an open tread staircase and bring more light into the space.
“A staircase is a sculpture in a house and yet it is often the last thing to be considered when it comes to lighting,” says Sally Storey, design director at John Cullen Lighting.
“Think about using a low wattage washer light on every other tread to create light and shade and lead the eye up to the landing. If you have a central well, hang a chain of pendants all the way down, which can look like rain falling and is really theatrical. Bocci does an amazing one.
“Make sure a pendant light is showing off the doors and use floor lights and wall lights to wash light over the area. It’s a real opportunity to add glamour and focus.”
London-based lighting designer Charles Edwards also makes the practical point that you should choose your light fitting carefully as, unlike most pendant lights, it will be seen from different angles.
“If you have a hall that is several storeys high then a tiered hanging lantern, such as the Greenwich [£7,380 from CharlesEdwards.com] will create a focal point for each landing.”
If you just want to redecorate your existing stairs then both Rogers and Lencer agree on one point: no carpet. Rogers says that paint is a bolder and more interesting choice.
“You must have fun with your decor. If you are really brave you could just pour several different colours of resin down from the top to create a pattern. Otherwise, use one colour and don’t worry if it doesn’t work – you can always paint over it.
“I am currently working on my own house and am keen on luminous yellow and coral shades which are reflective and translucent and work with sophisticated greys to make them pop out.”