Staircases have a flair for the dramatic, don’t they? They seem to serve as the backdrop to some of the most glamorous movie scenes and momentous occasions in our lives. Whether we’re watching Rose descend into the grand ballroom in Titanic or the kids line up for prom photos, the staircase sets the scene. While beautiful, staircases also hold a sense of mystery, from countless horror movies keeping you on the edge of your seat for the slow climb up toward danger to simply wondering what lies at the top of the landing at your neighbor’s house. Beautiful, functional, mysterious, and dangerous — staircases are complex, and designing them is no simpler!
At my Austin interior design firm, we’re currently working with a client on a new staircase design. The process reminded me just how many components and how much technical expertise go into crafting these beautiful features that we tend to take for granted. Homeowners must have a basic working knowledge of the parts of a staircase and available styles to fully communicate their vision with their designer. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the different types of staircases, their components, and other design elements to consider.
Staircases: Your Home’s Functional Focal Point
The staircase is one of your home’s most functional focal points, doing much more than getting you from the bottom to the top floor. For example, a bifurcated staircase can create a dramatic first impression in your entryway, and a spiral staircase can make for a quirky conversation piece in an open loft.
Staircases blend function and beauty, with design considerations going beyond navigation concerns. When discussing staircases with clients, folks want solutions for hanging garlands down the banister for the holidays, displaying family portraits along the wall, and creating enough clearance for a powder room under the stairs. These design considerations are just the start!
6 Types of Staircases
There are six main types of staircase styles. The best fit will depend on the home’s layout.
1. Straight Staircase
Straight staircases consist of a single linear flight of steps with no change in direction. They’re most common because they are easier to design and construct. However, the design requires a long wall and won’t work in smaller spaces.
2. Switchback Staircase
Switchback staircases are also called halfback, half-turn, and U-shaped stairs. They consist of two parallel flights with a connecting landing. Switchback staircases offer more visual interest and require less linear space than straight staircases.
3. Quarter-turn Staircase
Quarter-turn or L-shaped staircases feature two perpendicular flights that connect with a landing at a 90-degree angle. Quarter-turn stairs fit nicely into corners and provide a welcoming landing closer to the base, perfect for the classic prom photo.
4. Curved Staircase
Curved staircases wrap along a curved wall for a more free-form and elegant design. They are the most challenging to design and build, making them one of the most expensive options. However, the investment makes for a stunning entry focal point.
5. Bifurcated Staircase
Bifurcated or split staircases feature a broad flight of stairs that lead to a generous landing and then split off into two smaller flights going in opposite directions. This staircase style typically connects to an open hallway that overlooks the entry below. Bifurcated staircases take up the most space and require additional railings and banisters.
6. Spiral Staircase
Spiral staircases have a central post with radiating steps that spiral upwards to the floor above, typically through a hole cut into the floor. Their compact design saves square footage, making them a fun choice for smaller homes and lofts. However, some folks find them challenging to navigate.
The Parts of a Staircase
You need to know the parts of a staircase to discuss your design with your interior designer. Here are the main components of a staircase to familiarize yourself.
The step is the tread and riser combined.
The tread is the horizontal surface of the step where you walk. Most treads measure 8 to 10 inches long.
The riser is the vertical space between steps. Most risers measure between 5 and 8 inches tall. Because they are one of the biggest visual components you see when going up the stairs, some homeowners accent risers with decorative tiles or paint colors.
The landing is a platform built between stair flights that allows users to change directions or rest. Larger landings create a more luxurious feel.
The balustrade comprises all the parts of a stair railing, including a banister supported by a series of balusters. It is a highly functional staircase element, ensuring secure navigation up and down. Plus, balustrades provide opportunities for beautiful design features.
Balusters are also known as rails, pickets, or spindles. They are short decorative posts that support the banister. The balusters or rails of a staircase can be vertically or horizontally oriented.
Banisters are also known as handrails. Balusters typically support them, but they can also be mounted directly to the wall. Banisters are designed to be easily grasped to provide stability and guidance to users navigating up and down the stairs.
The newel post is a larger baluster placed at the top and bottom of a flight of stairs. This grounding feature marks the start of the stairs and can include decorative design elements in the style of the home.
A finial is a purely decorative feature of a staircase. Typically, finials are seen in more traditional stair railing designs. They are often placed atop newel posts to provide an accent.
Front of House vs. Back of House Stairs
Older period homes sometimes feature two sets of stairs for the front and back of the house. Front entry stairs tend to be larger, grander, and open, with a decorative railing to serve as a welcoming focal point for guests. Back stairs were originally intended for house staff use, connecting the kitchen to the upper bedrooms. These rear stairs are typically steeper, less ornate, and hidden in a walled corridor. While some folks have removed back stairs to make room for powder rooms and closets, others appreciate the history and added convenience of a quick route to get a midnight snack.
Engineering Staircases: A Technical Trade
Because of the many components that go into the design, staircases are often considered a specialty item requiring a trained team of seasoned professionals. An architect, engineer, interior designer, and tradespeople all play a role in the finished product to ensure a safe, functional, and beautiful design. Some folks are surprised by just how expensive building a staircase can be. However, it’s a crucial element to get right, and the investment will be well worth it.
Ascending to New Heights (or at Least the Second Floor)
This Interior Design entry is just the first step into the complex and fascinating world of staircase design. You can leave figuring out the exact details to the experts. But with this knowledge, you can take your seat at the table and have the tools to discuss finish selections and design possibilities.
Take your staircase to the next level.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.