When it comes to elements of design that are the perfect marriage of form and function, nothing comes to mind quicker than a staircase. Over the centuries, residential staircases have transformed beyond their functional appeal into a true design powerhouse, providing pros and homeowners alike a chance to bring architectural interest, personality, and fun to spaces big and small.
Whether you’re tackling a home build from the ground up or are undertaking a remodel and looking to inject some visual interest into your staircase, there are endless ways to do so—and a few important pieces of lingo to understand before you start dreaming up ideas. Below, we’re recapping the basic anatomy of a staircase, plus all the ways in which you can show your personality through the design. Because building codes can vary greatly depending on the project and location, we haven’t really covered that here—but that doesn’t mean you can turn a blind eye. It’s always a good idea to touch base with a pro in your area (be that a contractor, inspector, or architect) ahead of starting a project to make sure whatever staircase changes you’re envisioning will be both stylish and safe.
Staircase Anatomy 101
Perhaps one of the most intricate designs and architectural details in a home, staircases have a surprising number of components. Learn the lingo below to talk the talk with contractors and design pros alike.
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A stringer is the support board that runs along each side of a staircase. It provides necessary structural support to the entire staircase and acts as a point of attachment for other elements, like the treads and risers. In most cases, one side (the inner stringer) is attached to a wall, while the other side (the outer stringer) is on the side of the staircase open to view. However, this can vary depending on the design of the staircase and the layout of the home.
At their most basic definition, treads are what you step on to climb your staircase. These horizontal pieces are typically a standard depth—10 to 11 inches at a minimum—to allow for easy (and thoughtless!) use of the staircase.
Risers are the vertical surface of a stair, where your toe kicks when walking up the treads of a staircase. While risers offer both stability and a spot for a decorative upgrade (more on that later!), they can also be left completely open to give the staircase a breezy “floating” effect. Like treads, risers are most often seen at a standard height (around 7 inches) to make walking up a staircase second nature.
A handrail (also called a banister) is what you hold onto as you climb or descend a staircase. It provides much-needed stability and can appear on one or both sides of a residential staircase.
In staircase lingo, a baluster refers to the vertical poles onto which the handrail is affixed. They act almost as a “guard rail,” preventing people (and objects) from falling off the side of the staircase. Balusters are also often referred to as spindles and can be a great place to add an element of design to your staircase to better suit your personality or the style of your home.
Located at the very top and bottom of your staircase (often at “ground” level), a newel refers to thicker support pieces that bookend your handrail and balusters to anchor the staircase into the rest of your home.
How To Upgrade The Design Of Your Staircase
For many homeowners, the staircase offers up an untapped opportunity for design personalization. From Colonial-inspired balusters in an 1800s New England home to an “invisible” stringer in a mid-century modern abode, incorporating the right elements into your staircase design can immediately upgrade not just your entryway or hallway, but your whole home. Here are a few fun ways to level up your staircase during your new remodel:
Add A Runner
Staircase runners (aka carpet trailing down your stairs) are not just a practical solution for cutting down on slipping and sliding—they can add an element of design, too. Opt for durable sisal to add a timeless texture to your space or experiment with color and pattern to truly make a statement. In the stairwell above, designer Brian Watford laid down a graphic grey and white design to add a subtle modern touch.
Invest in Decorative Balusters
As long as they pass inspection, there’s no rule that says your chosen staircase balusters need to be boring. Look to an ornately turned wood design to add a touch of tradition to your space, or stick with forged iron for a look that marries timeless techniques with modern sensibilities. In his own family home (seen above), designer Jeffrey Alan Marks leaned into the beachy Montecito surroundings with balusters made of sturdy rope and attached with boat cleats.
Opt For Ornate Risers
Do us a favor and go take a look at your staircase head-on—what do you see? Most of your field of vision is probably directed towards the risers of your stairs, making them a great place to add a bit of funk. Because most design additions you add to your risers won’t impact the integrity of your stairs, you can really have a lot of fun with your options. Personalize them with a coat of your favorite paint color or add on decorative tile for a bit of old-world appeal. Another great option? Wallpaper! In her own Texas family home (seen above), HGTV star Grace Mitchell utilized wallpaper scraps to enliven the risers on a back staircase.
Make Something “Invisible”
When it comes to jaw-dropping staircase design, glass elements are a great way to trick the eye and create a scene that looks truly trippy. From tempered glass treads that feel like you’re walking on air to paneled glass “balusters,” this design element is a clear winner when it comes to lending a gutsy, modern edge to a space. Bonus? It can be practical, too! Case in point: Designer Sarah Richardson used sleek panels of glass on the stairwell in a client’s Ontario home (above) to give the look airy appeal and avoid detracting from the expansive windows behind the stairwell that reveal the ski slopes surrounding the chalet’s exterior.
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