WHATEVER HAPPENED to those Hollywood staircases? You know the kind: vertiginous spirals in Hitchcock thrillers, romantic red steps on which Marilyn Monroe gushed about diamonds. These days, awesome sweeps and carved mahogany balustrades worthy of a gowned Vivien Leigh seem gone with the wind, or at least too grand for most urban and suburban dwellings. But that doesn’t mean you have to squander all the potential your home’s staircase has to offer, whether it’s storage, seating or just an elevated aesthetic.
In a historic San Francisco residence, among those shown here, sleek drawers replace the vexingly shaped broom closets we expect below stairs, and a dangling brass light activates the height above. Tucked underneath a staircase in Altadena, Calif., is a plush, brightly upholstered oasis. Cloud-patterned wallpaper that lines a passage leading up to a New York apartment’s terrace offers a foreshadowing breath of fresh air, and playfully stenciled stair risers uplift an Iowa bungalow.
Why bother? Because our own daily dramas—nervous prom-night descents and self-righteous storm-offs—deserve movie-quality backdrops, too. Here, interior designers demonstrate how the simplest of stairways can be transformed with a few simple steps.
Stairway to Heaven
In a staircase that leads to a Manhattan penthouse’s terrace, New York designers
delivered a brooding forecast with a sprinkle of whimsy. From the start, the plan revolved around the cloud wallpaper from Cole & Son. “It just felt so appropriate for the space, for where it was leading and with the natural light,” Ms. Pappas explained. “A repeating pattern in a staircase can be overwhelming, but the great movement, lighter tones and big scale in this wallpaper take care of that.” As does an unexpected rest-stop. “The large landing felt sad and empty, so we dressed it up,” she said of the late-19th-century Shaker chair that joined a house plant and a Vietnamese textile there. “We created a moment, someplace your eye could pause before continuing up.”
Slight of Handrail
“We designed a fresh, graphic and fun space that duals as an art gallery,” said Moscow-based interior designer
of a stairway dotted with an original Warhol and Piet Mondrian prints. The black-and-white, star-studded runner is inspired by optical artist Victor Vasarely—whose work hangs elsewhere in this three-story Paris home. “The polished-chrome and clear-glass banister make this stair visually wider and airier,” noted Mr. Istomin, while strategically placed sconces, Mr. Istomin’s preferred light fixture in stairways, “provide a consistent level of light as you move up and down.” A black iron console by
makes the landing “feel like a room unto itself.”
“I think the space underneath a staircase can be as good of a jewel-box moment as any powder room,” said Los Angeles designer
she created this tropical alcove—“perfect for naps, reading, or talking on the land line”—in the Altadena, Calif., home of a couple and their two teenage daughters. Claustrophobia is held in check with an abundance of white and a sconce from Rich Brilliant Willing that is covered with a walnut disk. “It keeps things bright but won’t burn your retinas or make you feel overheated in a tight space.”
Early 20th-Century Risers
When interior designer
Jason Oliver Nixon
and John Loecke, the duo behind North Carolina’s Madcap Cottage, took on Mr. Loecke’s parents’ 1920s bungalow in Des Moines, Iowa, the staircase strategy was to borrow themes from other parts of the house “so the eye can connect the dots.” The dwelling’s original shutters, he said, “had this beautiful motif of acorns and oak leaves, and to honor the house’s history we created a stencil—which is so easy!—to use on the risers inside.” Their blue tones echo in the cable rug and matting of some of the 140 antique English prints. “That huge expanse of wall is great for displaying pieces. Why waste it?”
A Great Divide
“Staircases are a perfect opportunity to create a psychological transition between a home’s public and private levels,” said Bay Area interior designer Nicole Hollis. In this Italianate residence in San Francisco, generation-bridging décor connects a main floor with the children’s area below. The gaze captured by the
painting, which layers contemporary images over classical ones, might strike kids as that of a watchful nanny but seem more coy to adult eyes. The Hanging Helix Light from Bec Brittain, in brass and black marble, is equal parts sophistication and playfulness. Custom-fitted drawers, more practical than the nooks and crannies of most under-stair closets, easily hide toys from visitors making their way to the guest rooms, also located on the lower level.