Stairwell Gets a Savvy Upgrade

THE HALLMARK OF impressive interior design is its ingenuity and ability to cleverly utilize space. It goes well beyond rearranging furniture and adding throw pillows. Most designers agree every home has underused (or flat out unused) areas that teem with potential. This is particularly true for the unassuming space beneath the staircase.

Maybe it is currently home to an inefficient closet. Or perhaps it’s open and occupied by an over owing storage bench or catchall console. It could be nothing at all, but whatever its current situation, the stairwell is about to get a savvy upgrade.

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Built-ins bring sophisticated, high-end style to any spot they occupy (not to mention a plethora of practical space for housing treasures). The empty expanse of walls beneath a staircase is a perfect candidate for such supplementary shelving. It was these exact arguments that led Glenn Gissler, of the eponymously-named Manhattan design firm, to transform a lackluster coat closet into show-stopping shelving in a 1930s duplex penthouse. “The stairs were the first view into the apartment,” Gissler explained. “Originally there was a modest-scaled coat closet that we relocated and expanded, making way for this striking bookcase that curves all the way around and underneath the stairs. It helped solve the problem of book storage, but perhaps more importantly, it gave a warm and meaningful view into the values and personalities of this well-read family.” Finish off the space with an armchair for a cozy reading nook.

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An extra half bath can add functionality in spades, as well as drive up the home’s value. At first glance, it might seem impractical (or downright impossible) to build an entire powder room in a tight space with a sloping ceiling, but with the right layout it can actually be a perfect-use of the staircase. “A powder room works great in this area,” said architect Ben Herzog of Brooklyn’s Herzog Architects. “Typically you don’t need that much headroom or ceiling height on the toilet side of a powder room. You can get away with having about five feet on the low end.” The sink and mirror are then stationed on the high side of the “room” and the door opens at the center, creating a modest space that’s precise in its efficiency.


Storage is one of the most popular ways to use the space, said Herzog, but in order to make it truly practical, it must be well thought out. “Typically, these areas are at least three feet deep, so in a single, open closet, something like shoes would just get buried in the back,” he said. Faced with this challenge in a Brooklyn townhouse he was renovating, Herzog proposed a fresh solution. In lieu of one large, open closet, he created a set of smaller spaces with pull-out shelving to make the entire length easily accessible. The best part is the setup can be easily retrofitted into any existing closet fairly easily and inexpensively. Herzog built the shelving system with standard slide-out pantry hardware.

image: gross & daley

image: gross & daley


Does an upcoming project offer the luxury of building stairs from scratch? Take a cue from traditional Japanese architecture and make storage a part of the structure from the outset, suggested Manhattan-based Specht Architects principal Scott Specht. His preferred technique, called Kaidan-Dansu, or “step chest,” is composed of storage cabinets that are grouped together for use as a stairway. The approach is ideal for small spaces and one that served as nearly all of the storage for a micro-loft he dreamed up in Manhattan. “We constructed a simple stair out of walnut, then had custom white-lacquered cabinets built to t precisely below. The cabinetry is composed of drawers to hold household goods, sweaters and other smaller items, as well as taller cabinets at the upper staircase with hanging space for coats and other clothing.”