Written by Susan Millar Perry
Produced By Nicole Sforza
More than a passage linking one level to another, a staircase can act as an architectural asset that lends your home character while ratcheting up its value. Grand and sweeping or simple and straightforward, the aesthetic impact of a staircase is shaped by its structural parts. These components include the treads (the horizontal pieces of the steps), the risers (the vertical parts), and the railing system (or balustrade), which is a combination of the handrail, the spindles (also called balusters) that support it, and the vertical newel posts that anchor the rail at the top or bottom of the stairs and landings. “These all work together like a composition, injecting a room with graceful form, rhythm, and pattern,” says McKee Patterson of Southport, Connecticut–based Austin Patterson Disston Architects. And styles abound: Balusters and newels can be plain, fluted, twisted, octagonal, or square, and materials can range from classic wood to contemporary glass. For design ideas, surf the Internet to see the work of custom builders, and check out manufacturers of preassembled stair parts. Prices start at around $60 for a basic wood newel post to $750 per foot for a complete wrought-iron balustrade.
Suit the size, scale, and purpose of the space
When designing a balustrade, consider where the staircase is located. “If it’s in the entry hall, the balustrade should convey a wow factor,” says Patterson. “It must draw the eye up and make you want to find out where the steps will take you.” But if your stairway is in a back hall, it shouldn’t scream for attention. Says New York City–based designer Brian O’Connor: “The rail and the spindles can be understated while decorative newel posts stand like sentinels to greet people.” What if your stairs land in the middle of your living space? “A fancy stairway can interrupt the flow of the area,” says Jim Burton of Carter+Burton Architecture in Berryville, Virginia. He prefers to keep loftlike floor plans airy by integrating impact-resistant glass risers with slim, stainless steel balusters that run horizontally: “This is ideal for contemporary great rooms because the staircase then looks like a streamlined piece of art.”
Take design cues from your home
Let the architectural style of your house or its decor dictate the materials and style of your balustrade. In a classic Colonial, the railing system would best be rendered in wood and feature turned spindles. In a modern duplex, a mix of stainless steel newel posts and glass panels can be dramatic. “You can find inspiration in an exterior detail, a molding profile, or a wallpaper pattern,” says Patterson, who once embellished a wooden balustrade for an Arts and Crafts house with cutout vinelike motifs inspired by the owner’s garden. “The grander and more traditional the home, the more elaborate your stair ornamentation can be,” says O’Connor.
Ramp up the style with ease
You don’t have to buy a whole new stair system to get a fresh look—simply treat your balustrade to a new coat of paint or top the newel posts with pretty finials. Patterson recently capped a newel post in a home that once belonged to Charles Lindbergh with a bronze dome engraved with the maps, dates, and times of the aviator’s historic flight. “You might etch in your family’s names or any design or dates that are important to you,” he says.
Focus on the hand rail
Local building codes will determine the size and height of your handrail. In addition to enhancing safety, handrails should make a good impression since they’re usually the first thing guests see upon entering a home. Vary materials to create stunning contrast: A gleaming stainless steel or rustic wrought-iron handrail can complement wooden balusters. You’ll need to choose between two types of handrails: Continuous, or over-the-post, rails flow all the way up the stairs without interruption (in a series of elegant sweeps in a curved staircase); straight rails begin and end at the newel post on each flight.
Play with spindle materials
Durable hardwood is by far the most popular choice for spindles. Some designers like to match the species (e.g., oak, maple, mahogany, or cherry) to the stair treads for a unified look. Also consider metals such as wrought iron, stainless steel, and aluminum, as well as concrete, stone, and industrial-strength glass. “As long as the materials are compatible with the surrounding room, anything goes,” says Burton. Remember to follow building codes here as well—most require that spindles be placed no more than 4 inches apart.