The Georgians really knew how to build staircases — dramatic cantilevered affairs with stone treads and sweeping curves — but the space and cost-conscious Victorians and Edwardians relegated them to the mundane.
Today, however, architects and designers are turning the humble staircase into a signature design item.
“The stair has a functional aspect, but can also be very beautiful and act as a stunning centrepiece to a space bringing in light,” says Nick Willson, director of Nick Willson Architects.
“We can also play with the look — its width, treads, risers and materials. Storage can be included, with bookcases for example, but also the stair can wrap around tight spaces or run up a double height space.”
Architect Michael Crowley adds: “The design of a staircase is not purely an aesthetic decision. This is one of the crucial elements of the house because you don’t only see it and utilise it, but daily you touch it. It’s the tactile centre of the building.”
This means that materials have to be chosen carefully and design should take into account how it will be used — the handrail should be the right size to grip perfectly and the risers should not be uncomfortably steep.
Another architect, Alex Haw, founder of Atmos Studio (www.atmosstudio.com), combined style with storage in a design for an artist and a musician’s home in Stoke Newington. Their central, open staircase is built of oak, steel and MDF, and the treads splay to create space for cupboards, shelves and seating in the understairs area.
“In duplex apartments staircases should be flexible. This flat only measured about 650sq ft. Whatever we did had to be very space-efficient and we needed to use every pocket of space.”
The project cost about £6,000, including labour, plus a design fee of about 15 per cent and carried out as part of a refurbishment.
Haw’s stairs are a mixture of form and function though stairs can also be simply extravagant.
The spine staircase
Philip Watts, founder of Philip Watts Design (www.philipwattsdesign.com) used glass, wood and metal to create his “spine staircase”, a statement piece created for a home in Northamptonshire, where the curved maple treads are supported by a sculptural piece resembling a thick, ropy spinal cord which appears to melt into the wood floor.
A cast aluminium rib cage is curved upward to form the balustrade (curved glass panels set between each of the ribs ensures the stairs are not only beautiful, but safe to use).
Meanwhile Battersea Power Station interior architects Michaelis Boyd (www.michaelisboyd.com) injected a bit of fun into a high-end home by creating a hybrid staircase/children’s slide for a family in Chelsea.
The practice designed a bespoke slide made of Corian which fits over a section of the stairs, transforming them into a slide for children. The slide is 1.5ft wide and, at around 4ft, the stairs are still wide enough for those who prefer a more conventional method of descent to walk down. It cost £9,000.
Property developers always tend to go for more traditional designs than architects. Fenton Whelan opted for a grand spiral staircase running through the heart of a remodelled listed house in Reeves Mews, Mayfair. A bohemian crystal chandelier — which weighs an astonishing 55 stone — throws shards of light around the stairwell.
“When you look at an old house it was clearly all about ‘my staircase is bigger than yours’,” says Peter Wetherell, managing director of Wetherell, which is marketing the house for £24 million. “The Victorians stopped doing that, which I think was a shame because it gives you a real sense of arrival and makes a house feel very special. They do, however, take up a lot of space.”
Glass balustrades are fashionable, and used with floating treads they give rather stolid stairs an ethereal feel.
The owners of a three-bedroom townhouse on Winchester Street, Pimlico, used wood, glass and metal for their floating staircase, which is a fine focal point to the open plan living room. The property is on sale for £1.65 million with Douglas and Gordon.
The interior design team Oliver Burns opted for glass balustrades when designing a marble-clad staircase for The Walpole lateral apartments beside the Ritz.