Interior Design

Sweeping statements

A new generation of architects are rediscovering the dramatic potential for staircases. Dominic Bradbury reports.

December 21 2011
Dominic Bradbury

When we picture our favourite building, there is often a dreamlike staircase winding its way through it. Childhood memories of beloved houses are populated by visions not just of grand spaces, but of crafted and intricate stairways that open our eyes to the power of design. As a child, one of the fondest elements of my parents’ Georgian home was the winding stairs, with a fluid wooden banister that I could follow with my hand from the very top to the curving spiral flourish at the bottom, as though stroking the tail of an exotic animal. The Georgians really knew how to create a wonderful stairway, a skill we have been in some danger of forgetting. But now a new wave of contemporary statement staircases is reintroducing the idea of heavenly stairs to the modern home.

A wonderful staircase can bring a house alive and transform it from something mundane into something extraordinary and exciting. This was true of the powerful design that Atmos Studio presented to James Lowry when it remodelled his Victorian family home in Clapham. A run-of-the-mill 19th-century staircase was replaced with a sinuous, sculpted invention that splices cutting-edge digital fabrication – using a computer-controlled wood-cutting machine, rather like a sophisticated 3-D printer – with organic, fluid curves reminiscent of art nouveau. Unsurprisingly, such ambitious schemes can be pricey, though the prices of individual projects tend to be closely guarded secrets.

The reinvention of the house actually began with the idea of joining the house and garden together, but the stairs – where the filigree banisters effortlessly transform themselves into oak-topped steps – were a natural extension of the imaginative approach that Atmos applied to the rest of the interiors.

“The design was intended not just as a celebration of space, but of movement,” says Atmos’s principal architect, Alex Haw. “We never actually discussed art nouveau, but I am a fan of the movement, as I am of any deeply immersive, sculptural and intelligent work. We wanted to generate a stair that was both contemporary and sympathetic to the existing building.”

Haw suggests that the stairway celebrates vitality of design, just as any great interior should. “We wanted something special and Alex gave us something extra special,” says Lowry. “He made it central to the design of the house, whereas we had envisaged it as one part of the whole. I don’t think anyone seeing it for the first time hasn’t started with an exclamation. A model was shown on BBC2’s The Culture Show and [the architect] Piers Gough described it as ‘this insanely complicated gorgeousness’. We agree.”

Nicholas Boyarsky and Nicola Murphy of Boyarsky Murphy Architects have also designed a series of eye-catching staircases. They converted a former church tower by Sir Christopher Wren, and utilised seven imaginative, bespoke staircases to span its 11 levels. A tailor-made design was also key to the successful amalgamation of two Notting Hill flats – at ground and lower-ground levels – into a unified home for film producer Rebecca O’Brien, best known for her collaborations with Ken Loach. They designed a new stairway using cherry-wood treads, a steel frame and stunning strips of coloured glass in green, blue and red. The turn of the stairs sits within part of a new conservatory that helps open up the maisonette to the glorious private and communal gardens at the back of the building. Here, the design of the new stairs was key to the project and part of a strategy to open up the living spaces, creating a greater sense of connection between the two floors.

“I could have just made a hole in the floor and put in a standard staircase, which might have been cheap and efficient,” says O’Brien. “But I thought: ‘I’m only going to do this once, and I have been here for 20 years and would love to spend another 20 years here.’ So I wanted to find something that really worked, and find someone who could do it in an original way. It is a great way to open up the place.”

Boyarsky has also created a striking staircase that winds its way up a five-storey Victorian house in Hampstead. Here, he added a new level at the top of the house, as well as a new basement swimming pool, for his client, who works in theatre. But he found that the floor plan of the house was being compromised by a very ordinary Victorian staircase, complete with landings, which stood to one side of the building. Ripping out the old staircase liberated the layout of the main living spaces, which look out across a view of Hampstead Heath. A new elliptical staircase, with a steel frame, ash treads, a leather-clad handrail, along with a glass balustrade that can be illuminated with coloured LED lights, now winds up a lift shaft at the front of the house, looking out onto the street. The walls around the stairs are painted in dramatic golden tones.

“It is a challenge how to connect space vertically and how you make a procession through the building and tie things together,” says Boyarsky. “The new staircase gave us the chance to do something sculptural and theatrical, while some of the paint finishes around the staircase are inspired by theatre interiors.

“If you go back to Georgian houses, many of the staircases were made of cantilevered stone, and attention was spent on staircases, especially that idea of rising up from the entrance to the piano nobile and the drawing room above. We have lost some of the ingenuity of the Georgian staircase, and it has taken time to understand how they really worked.”

Compared with the Georgian masters, the Victorians came a poor second with their staircases, often settling for little more than functionality. There was a revival within the arts and crafts movement, as well as the eras of art nouveau and art deco. Many of the pioneering early modernists also had a soft spot for a really good stairway. Le Corbusier’s pioneering Villa Savoye, near Paris, was graced with a wonderful spiral stair, and a ramp that wound its way up from the ground floor to the roof terrace. Postwar designers such as John Lautner and Paulo Mendes da Rocha also made their mark. Yet over the final decades of the 20th century it seems that we forgot what a great staircase could do for us. All too often, they were an afterthought, or treated as a purely functional problem to resolve. At the same time, many period town houses were divided up into flats, and often the original staircase was damaged or ripped out and replaced with something more mundane.

So now we are busily rediscovering the sense of delight and drama in a great stairway. “Staircases have often been the most interesting part of any project that we have done,” says Alex Michaelis of Michaelis Boyd Architects. “We know that it will become a focal point of the house. It’s how you can really make a house feel special.”

As part of its work for Soho House, Michaelis Boyd designed a stunning steel spiral staircase at the private members’ club’s Berlin outpost. It is also renowned for a series of new-build homes and updates of period buildings, where investing in a new staircase opens up many fresh possibilities. With the position moved, more flexible and practical floor plans are created, while the stairs themselves become highly contemporary design statements.

For one London client, for whom Michaelis converted a former school into a home, he designed a staircase with timber treads and a balustrade of wire mesh, which creates a pixellated effect within the stairwell and upon those who pass up and down. In his own family home, in Ladbroke Grove, Michaelis designed stairs with a slide alongside for his young children to enjoy. And in Notting Hill, a four-storey town house that once held 10 flats was completely rebuilt (apart from the façade), and Michaelis Boyd created a staircase that is partially enclosed by solid partition walls punctuated with a series of miniature windows, each offering edited glimpses of the stairs. Each of these openings is illuminated by recessed lights in many different colours. The inspiration was Le Corbusier’s famous Ronchamp chapel in France, also known as Notre Dame du Haut, where he created walls of windows punctuated by stained glass.

“We have done so many staircases now that we were looking to do something different here,” says Michaelis. “I love staircases that have a wall going around them, wrapping them; but then we decided to create these cutouts going all the way up the stairs to let little bits of light through.”

In some spaces, the staircase becomes more of a free-standing object, like a sculpture in a gallery. At Seema and Charles Perez’s north London home, Eldridge Smerin Architects designed a spiral staircase sitting within a generously sized hallway. Made with precision-cut, birch-faced plywood and balustrade panels finished in a high-gloss lacquer paint, the stairs have a rich, graphic quality and are now a focal point within an updated Victorian home.

“The idea evolved from a prototype that we built for a house in Hampstead, which worked so well that I thought the design had the potential to be a signature element within our buildings,” says architect Nick Eldridge. “I had been interested in the structures of 18th-century stone staircases and the smooth, shell-like spiralling surface of the underside. It is very beautifully made.” According to Eldridge, “Staircases should be free-standing works of sculpture where space permits. In this sense, the stairs follow the long tradition of ‘object’ staircases. So often, staircases are hidden away rather than celebrated.”

Similarly, the stairway that American architects Calvin Tsao and Zack McKown created at their New York apartment is a beautiful centrepiece – literally so, as it sits right at the heart of the duplex. The mathematical precision and dynamism of the elegant, twisting structure is composed of a continuous steel ribbon sheathed in fibreglass-reinforced marble-dust plaster, dressed with treads and risers in Brazilian cherry wood it brings the space alive.

“The design of the rest of the apartment’s architecture is meant to recede, but the stair is a sculptural element,” says Zack McKown. “It also serves as a partial divider between the kitchen/breakfast area and the main living and dining spaces. We haven’t tired of its simple forms, and when the opportunity presents itself to do something like this, it’s hard to resist. A well-designed stair can make the difference between enjoying moving through your abode or feeling out of sorts with it.”

A well-designed stairway can bring other benefits, too. Mike Rundell of Rundell Associates has a particular passion for a beautifully sculpted staircase. Yet for his design of a two-storey apartment in west London, over ground and basement levels, the staircase also became a key part of the strategy to open up the living space and introduce natural light to the basement, via the stairs and a skylight above. Setting the solid-steel staircase – with open risers and oak treads – slightly away from the surrounding walls, along with the use of coloured, pinpointed lighting, plus the rich quality of natural light, allows the crisp form of the stairway to shine out.

“Light was a very big issue with the client, because the basement was, by its very nature, rather dark, whereas the floor above was very light,” says Rundell. “It has completely changed the nature of the basement from being a rather claustrophobic room to creating a sense of release via the staircase. Then there was a lot of energy put in to lighting the staircase as though it were an art piece, and making the maximum impact with the shape of the stairs.”

For architect Daniel Monti, of Modal Design, the staircase was an integral part of the concept of a house for his parents and his family in Venice, California. The house is wrapped in a Cor-Ten steel screen, perforated with circular openings. The stairs inside were made with some of the 3,000 steel discs left over from this process, welded into inter-linked patterns that became the balustrade, top lit from above by a generous skylight. This link between the exterior treatment and the staircase itself – which also uses oiled walnut timber for the treads and risers – gives the house a sense of cohesion and vitality.

“It was an intentional design strategy to highlight this positive/negative relationship between the machined quality of the exterior screen and the more organic, hand-crafted quality of the balustrade,”says Monti. “The stair’s location at the front of the house also gives it increased importance within the experience of movement through the house.”

In Primrose Hill, Spina Design has created an extraordinary light sculpture cascading down the stairwell of a five-storey period house owned by a client working in finance. The original painted wooden staircase has been brought to life by the 11m sculpture, made with jet, amber and clear crystal.

“Its strong presence lifts the Victorian proportions to create contemporary grandeur on a magnificent scale,” says design director Robbie Spina. “It takes you on a journey through the grand centre and heart of the house, and adds another dimension to the space, since the more exuberant the design, the more the property feels special. It elevates the whole feeling of the house.”

From afterthought to front piece, the contemporary stairway is certainly going up in the world. It is only as it should be for one of the most seductive and precious elements of any home. “Very luckily, I grew up in a house that had seven floors and was linked by a single staircase from top to bottom, with a single handrail all the way down,” says Rundell. “It was a magnificent journey for the eye. I have always worried about the fact that in modern houses people have not been paying enough attention to creating exciting stairs. A lot of the work we put into buildings is about creating really wonderful staircases.”

See also

Staircases