Home Improvement

Social climbers: Stairs rise from necessity to blank canvas for creative home design — and Internet oohs and ahs

Plus, what are ‘witches stairs,’ and were they truly invented to allay fears of being bewitched?

Sheila Hooley Sheeran
Sheila Hooley Sheeran's goldendoodle, Bugsy, ascends the painted stairs in her Chatham home.

Sheila Hooley Sheeran has always loved color. But when the south Florida native moved into a newly built home in Chatham in 2015, she knew the plain wooden staircase by the back door wasn’t exactly in line with her aesthetic.

“I wanted a sense of joy walking into that mudroom,” said Hooley Sheeran, a meditation and yoga teacher and energy medicine practitioner. “I just wanted to be sparked with joy the moment I walked in, so I wanted color there.”

With the help of Marsha Malone of Nautique, an interior design firm and home furnishings shop in Brewster, Hooley Sheeran brought in an artist to transform the wooden staircase into a colorful venue for self-expression. The artist spent three weeks painting the stairs, taking reference from the preppy colors featured throughout the home’s interior and tying them into the vertical stripes that cascade down the stairway in a glossy sheen. The same Kelly green is pulled out from the back of the bookcases in the great room, while a bold yellow stripe, taken from the chandelier that hangs over the stairs, is bolstered by surrounding lines of pink, navy, and blue-ish gray.


“We extricated all the colors we used throughout the home and replicated that to give a punch of cool in a back staircase hall,” Malone said. “It was like a dead space, but it was the door everyone uses off the driveway when they come in. Now you see this wonderful staircase.”

Hooley Sheeran’s desire to infuse color and personality is an indication of the changing tide when it comes to stairs in the American home. Previously treated as solely functional, the integration of color and dimension into residential stairs is stronger than ever. The rise of Pinterest and TikTok has fueled inspiration for homeowners who want to be a little bit more daring with their creative choices at home, with some painting stairs in ombré tones and gradients. It’s a significant departure from the New England homes of the 1700s and 1800s, when some staircases were hidden by doors at the top and bottom. Then, of course, there were the steep staircases in the rear of homes designed for servants, so they could avoid contact with those for whom they were hired to work.

Previously treated as solely functional, the integration of color and dimension into residential stairs is stronger than ever. Adobe Stock

One particularly unusual phenomenon is “witches stairs,” the nickname for alternate-tread designs that look as if they’re built with Legos. While legend has it they were given that name due to the belief that witches couldn’t climb risers of varying sizes, experts say that’s most likely an urban legend.


“Historically, they originate out of practicality — instead of a ladder when space was tight,” said Richard Griswold, associate vice president and dean of students at Boston Architectural College. “Periodically the feature gets revived in current projects, usually to get to a lofted sleeping area.”

“Witches stairs” were alternatives to ladders in old homes. Havang/Wikipedia Commons

Back in the present day, designers say more subtle nods to color are also popular in stairs. Jess Harrington, owner and founder of JessFinessed, a Boston-area home staging and interior design firm, recently had a staircase in a historic South End brownstone painted a satin black.

“When we evaluate an older home that’s going on the market, painting, changing the lighting, and refinishing the floors are the three things that provide a good [return on investment],” Harrington said. “You can take something dated and take it close to looking a little more modern. I think the overall thing is with paint, it’s like, you can paint over it. It’s just so easy to experiment and change.”

Lindy Lowney of Lindy Lowney Design in East Greenwich, R.I., cites both the financial and logistical benefits of painting stairs. While converting a Newport multifamily home into a single-family property, she had the risers painted ombré gray shades, transitioning from a deep charcoal hue at the bottom all the way up to medium-tone grays. The result made the top, which was previously a “boring” staircase for a second-floor apartment, “more spacious and not so cave-like.”


“It’s a great solution for clients that don’t want to put a runner on their stairs. It can be cost-effective to do paint, and it’s not a huge commitment. It hides scuffs with darker colors,” Lowney said. “It was a nice solution that didn’t cost a ton but gave a really great look.”

Certainly, it’s not only residential spaces that are channeling unique features for stairs. In the lobby at 111 Harbor Way in the Seaport, a three-tier wooden riser with steps functions as a gathering space where employees can drink coffee or get work done. Overhead, a suspended installation by Berlin-based artist Tomislav Topic titled “PARADE” is a collection of colored mesh.

This lobby space at 111 Harbor Way in the Seaport is called The Paseo and features an art installation by Berlin-based artist Tomislav Topic titled “PARADE. Boston Seaport by WS Development/Eric Levin

Still, preconceived notions of what a traditional staircase should look like do restrict some design decisions. Harrington said the initial reaction can often be “you can’t paint wood!”

“But these homes have been painted over and over again, so it’s kind of like, it’s just the next iteration of making it look beautiful,” she noted. “Trends have changed, times have changed, but keep in mind that wood has traditionally been painted for the sake of good design for centuries.”

Megan Johnson can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to our free weekly real estate newsletter on Boston.com, and follow us on Twitter @globehomes.


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