Stepping Up Staircase Design

A necessary element in every multilevel home? Naturally. But your stairs don’t have to be boring. Marshall Erb Design is dreaming up new ways to bring drama and impact to every step you take.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

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Continuity of color paired with a dark, contrast railing makes for big impact. (Photo credit: Arent & Pyke)

In the simplest of terms, staircases are a vehicle for connecting stacked spaces within the home. A means to get from point A to point B, if you will. But as any architect or interior designer will tell you, staircases are also one of the biggest focal points when entering a home—a statement feature that can set the tone for your entire abode. Marshall Erb Design in Chicago knows a thing or two about making an entrance. From the latest architectural shapes to material selection, we’ve tapped founder and lead designer Marshall Erb to break down the staircase trends to consider for your next project.

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Spiral staircases can make the most of your space because they have a small footprint. (Photo credit: Peter Mikic)


Maybe it’s because we have Insta-access to so many inspirational staircase images these days. Or because wowing with that first impression has become a trademark move among design’s elite. Whatever the reason, staircases are getting a lot of attention. “Across all of our projects, there’s a heightened level of attention being paid to the form and function of the staircase,” says Erb. “Whereas in the past the staircase was a design left mostly to the architect, nowadays it’s often a collab between architect and interior designer. Because today’s staircases are so much more than just structural. Good staircase design is about texture, materials, colors and lighting—and that’s where we come as interior designers with stylish solutions. I definitely think this new, collaborative way of approaching staircases has expanded the conversation and the possibilities.”


One thing Erb has noticed taking hold is a desire to restyle or update the staircase to reflect a more modern sensibility, particularly within traditional homes. “For a current project, we’re incorporating a highly modern, free-floating elliptical staircase in a Victorian house. Our clients with older homes tend to want a balance of newness and old-world charm. Modernizing the main staircase is an impactful way to add an architectural moment that balances out some of the more traditional design elements found elsewhere throughout the house that you want to keep.” Speaking of floating staircases, Erb assures us that they are very much en vogue. “No one wants basic, 2×4 construction anymore because visually it’s too cumbersome. They want their stairs to appear to be floating, even if it’s just a trick of the eye.” Erb is quick to note that the spiral staircase is making a big comeback in the form of fresh interpretations, too. “A spiral’s curvaceous design can make the most of your space because they have a small footprint, meaning they don’t require as much room as other styles.”

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For contemporary elegance, Marshall Erb recommends using inline glass panels with a minimalist balustrade. (Photo credit: Neville Johnson/Homes & Gardens)


On the architectural side of things, composition and placement are being carefully considered. “It’s all about making a statement that sets the tone for the rest of your house,” says Erb. “People usually fall into two camps in terms of the type of style statement they want to make when it comes to the main staircase. They either want the stairs to disappear or they want a strong, sculptural statement.” It’s the latter that gets architects excited. “When the plan is to go sculptural, it presents an opportunity for the architect to make a hero statement—a giant focal point,” says Erb. “For example, for another project that we’re working on, the staircase was positioned in a double-height, glass-enclosed corner of the house so that the entire staircase is visible from the yard and street. Not only does this move let copious amounts of natural light in, but it also creates this cool indoor/outdoor visual experience.” For hidden or sub-level stairs, glass paneling in place of a balustrade is a contemporary way to ensure that as much natural light as possible filters down to the darkest reaches of a house. Other light-capturing tricks include sticking to pale-colored treads and utilizing light-reflecting paint on the walls.


For that aforementioned Victorian, Erb opted for a sinuously sexy and organic handrail for textural interest. “We coated the railing with a plaster finish that matches its solid plaster sides for color continuity,” says Erb, who has no shortage of out-of-the-box design ideas when it comes to stairs. “For a different project, we wrapped the stair treads in leather instead of going with a typical runner rug. Using unconventional materials is a great way to shake things up.” For projects in warmer climes where stone floors tend to fill the house, Erb recommends carrying the stone up the stairs for unified materiality. “As is the trend for kitchen and bathroom flooring, we’re seeing more and more staircases made out of all-marble slabs,” says Erb. “It’s a beautiful look, but keep in mind that marble is expensive and can be slippery. The reality is that even a basic staircase is expensive. And when you start adding in fancy materials or complexities like floating cantilevers, your cost will go up.” That said, Erb assures that there are ways to get creative for less, including paneling the walls or peppering in artful sconces that climb the stairs (carrying the eye with them).

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Perforated metal can create the illusion that your stairs are floating. (Photo credit: Studio David Thulstrup)


While beauty and presentation are always goals for the trendsetting staircase, Erb also knows that function and everyday use are equally important design factors—and where working with a savvy interior designer really comes into play. “Lighting the stairs is something we’ve been deeply considering of late,” says Erb. “A lot of our clients want night lighting on their staircases to illuminate the way when the house is dark, creating a clear pathway from floor to floor. The trend used to be under-tread lighting, but I find that the overall effect is a little too commercial or jazzy for our residential clients, mostly because it provides too much light. Mini, wall-embedded spotlighting is easier on the eyes.” On the subject of safety features, Erb makes a strong case for runners, too. “I’m a big fan of stair runners—some kind of carpet on the stairs with wood exposed. Not only is it a major safety feature, you can coordinate your coloration or pattern play to tie things together. Unless we’re working with free-floating risers, I try to incorporate runners every time.” His only rule of thumb so that your staircase doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb? “Make sure that your stair design gels with the rest of the furniture in your house. Continuity. Continuity. Continuity.”