Staircase Decor, 3 Common Mistakes {and what to do instead}



Hey Everyone,

Recently I received a real Dear Laurel note asking about staircase decor.

We recently discussed long hallways and home builder gaffs which included entries and staircases.

Therefore, staircase decor and design is a natural topic of discussion.

I looked it up in the dictionary:

The word staircase originate in the early 17th century.



Don’t you adore old architectural drawings? This is a fragment of the amazing grand staircase at Le Petit Trianon at Versailles. Louis XVI had it built for his mistress Madame De Pompadour. However, she died before it was complete.



Today, a section of the ornate railing. Photo by Stacey Bewkes of Quintessance. There are more gorgeous photos from the palace in the link.


Staircase = drama



Frankly my dear… You’re coming with me!


Helsinki04Natural History Museum10Helsinki Natural History Museum

I get a little dizzy when I look at this but it’s because of me not this exquisite architectural gem.


Time to abandon, the extraordinary for the three “are you kidding me? examples to avoid in staircase design and decor.



What is this?

Not only does it look hazardous, it has to be the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.



No, I was wrong. This is uglier.

A proper runner or nothing. Please.


Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 1.18.54 AM

I think that staircase could use a little mowing. What do you think?

Seriously, though, I have seen this in people’s homes.

What do you do if there is no finished tread?

You can buy tread and riser covers to make a proper tread and then you can put down a lovely runner. We’ll get to that in a sec.



Oh, please!


haha. BTW, I did change some of these to get the biggest gag-effect.

They really do sell these decals on Etsy!

I’m sure I’ve left out something.

Please let me know in the comments about any staircase abominations you’ve come across.

Let’s move on to the do’s in staircase decor


magazineC-APR-FEATMOBY-Staircase decorMagazine C

I love the look of this all-white banister and rail. However, the reality is that the rail is going to get a lot of abuse. So, if you want to do this, it would take a lot of work to get a nice solid finish that’s less apt to chip.


little green notebook black staircaseLittle Green Notebook

This all black staircase is chic as hell IMO. Black is a trend in staircase decor that I think has some legs.


david-hicks-black-staircase-red-chinoiserie-chair - Staircase decor

David Hicks (not sure of the original source)

The question is: Can you paint a narrow back staircase a dark color?

YES! You can as you can see how fabulous this is, but— it has to make sense and the lighting needs to be very good.


jk-place-capri-michele-bonan - Chippendale railing - staircase decor

I can’t possibly do a post about staircases without putting in my very favorite one in the entire world–in my favorite hotel. The JK Place Capri. For those not in the know, the style is Chinese Chippendale after the cabinet-maker, Thomas Chippendale. In the late 1700s was the time when Chinoiserie became wildly popular in England and France.


Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 7.35.30 PMMeg Braff’s equally gorge Chinese Chippendale railing in white.


Elizabeth-Roberts-Ensemble-Architecture-Fort-Greene-Cumberland-Terrace-Remodelista-14-733x1101via the Romodelista – Elizabeth Roberts Townhome in Brooklyn

More black stairs. Love the ebony herringbone floor too.


sims-hilditch-interior-design-bath-country-house- staircase decor

I think these are wrought iron spindles but not 100% sure. It’s an English Country Home by Sims Hilditch


jk-kling-stairs-sisal-rug-runner-white-spindels-traditional-staircase decorJK Kling

Alright. Gorgeous staircase. Gorgeous! But, sisal stair runner. Looks great doesn’t it?

Don’t do it. It’s slippery and it stains.
I repeat. It’s slippery and it stains.

Although, I do see it in magazines like the above for instance. I don’t see any blood. Maybe it’s alright. Anybody? I’ve never used it because I’ve always been told that it’s slippery and it definitely stains!

Please note that the above runners are in the waterfall style installation.


staircase runner Loi Thai Tone on Tone wool sisal black railing

What to do instead?

A mostly wool and sisal blend. Just plain wool or nylon.

Above and below by Loi Thai of Tone on Tone.


wool sisal stair case runner

There are also wool and sisal blends that look like sisal but are not slippery.

This is called a Hollywood installation. Actually, I did not know that term. I always just called it the one that wraps tightly around the stair tread.

With most stair runners, there should be about 3-6″ of wood showing. More than 8″ and I think it begins to look funny unless it’s a super-wide staircase. But please no six-foot-wide staircases with a 27″ wide runner. That looks incredibly dumb.



Old Townhome

This blog has a great tutorial for creating this wainscoting/handrail. Wainscoting is the antidote to greasy hands. :]


staircase-white-alls-geometric-stair-runner-settee-marble-floor-bear-hill-interiorsBeautiful neo-traditional Foyer and staircase by Bear Hill Interiors.



SB Long Interiors

Live the crisp tailored work and millwork.



Sims Hilditch

eric-ross-traditional-home-2014-showhouse-stairs-before-duhWhat is this, you ask?

It’s the before for the Traditional Home Showhouse 2014 created by Eric Ross. He’s a facebook friend designer who I just finally met in person at the Design Blogger’s Conference. He and his lovely wife Ruthanne run the business together.


OMore-stairsAmazing transformation!



Did you know that you can have wallpaper laminated? The person who wrote in said that she needed something super durable. Well, there is the answer. I love Schneider Banks in Texas, but there are other places that will laminate your wallpaper so it can be cleaned easily.

Some wallpapers are wipeable but not laminated.


TScheerer stairs

Then, there are some beautiful high-end vinyl papers that are super practical and great looking. The above wallpaper is David Hick’s The Vase- available through Clarence House. I just heard his delightful daughter, India Hicks at the Design Blogger’s Conference. Not only is she insanely talented, she’s screamingly funny too! Great speaker!

Below is from Osborne and Little


osborne and little

Everything below is from Thibaut.



RO-FlandersSome of the vinyl coverings look just like grass cloth.



fea_beaconhill2Boston Magazine

Whimsical, colorful entry and staircase decor.

Hope that gave y’all some great ideas for railings, runners, and walls for your staircases. There are also some nice staircases and railings here, here and here




  • sjk - February 4, 2017 - 9:30 AM

    You asked about sisal on stairs. I have it! I can say ours is not at all slippery BUT it can stain. Of course, we haven’t really had an issue with staining because we don’t typically get water on the stairs. But I know it does, because there was a leak a few years back and water ran down the stairwall and stained the sisal.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - February 4, 2017 - 8:51 PM

      Hi SJK,

      Thanks for weighing on that topic. Yeah… it definitely stains.ReplyCancel

  • Hogan - May 16, 2016 - 6:49 AM

    Hi Laurel! I find all of your insight spot on and the most helpful out there! Let’s talk dining rooms. There’s a debate about rugs. I believe you need one under the table to make the room feel finished. And do you have a preference on material? Also, do you start with the purchase of the rug first ? Or can you back into it at the end? You’re the best!! Thank you!!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - May 16, 2016 - 8:37 AM

      Hi Hogan,

      It depends on the dining room but sometimes I really love not to do a rug. There’s a dining room in my portfolio with green wallpaper without a rug as an example. It just won and award for best dining room in a contest sponsored by Westchester Home Magazine.

      My favorite material for dining room rugs is seagrass. They are very durable and practical and inherently stain resistant, not to mention great looking.

      However, I’ve done many Oriental rugs in dining rooms as well.ReplyCancel

  • Wendy Purcell - March 22, 2016 - 4:27 PM

    Hi Laurel, I really enjoy your blog. Your comments about sisal are spot on. Everything can stain it – including water. And it cannot be cleaned. It can only be vacuumed or if its a rug, taken outside and beaten. We made the mistake of using it in our living room and family room and ended up with muddy paw and footprints that lasted until we pulled it up and installed hardwood floors. Thanks for the great insights & pics!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 22, 2016 - 10:19 PM

      Hi Wendy,

      Spot on. Great pun although I’m sure unintentional.
      I have written about sisal on here a few times and how great it looks and that’s where it ends. It is the worst material in terms of practicality there is! And yet, it is all over the magazines. I don’t know. Maybe they bring it in for the shoot and then recycle it for the next photo shoot. lol
      Seagrass, however, is the opposite. It’s great looking and very practical. It repels stains and is easy to maintain.

  • Pam - March 16, 2016 - 11:29 PM

    Hi Laurel,
    I have subscribed to your blog but as far as I know I have not received the Get Your Paint Colors Right the first time guide. Could you please check on it?
    Loving all your ideas!!!


    • Laurel Bern - March 17, 2016 - 12:29 PM

      Hang on Pam. There’s an occasional glitch but I thought they fixed that. I’ll send it over pronto.ReplyCancel

      • Jane - April 2, 2016 - 9:08 PM

        I love your blog, but also have not received the Get Your Paint Colors Right guide. Could you please send me a copy? Thank you!ReplyCancel

        • Jane - April 2, 2016 - 9:27 PM

          Thank you, Laurel, I just received it. Your blog is an inspiration. I was struggling with how to use my parent’s traditional furniture, which I inherited. I am in my 30s, and like a more modern style, but your blog has helped me see that neotraditional can look fresh. Not only will using their furniture save me money on high quality furniture, but it means I can keep meaningful pieces and pass them on to my children. You are such a blessing to my family.

        • Laurel Bern - April 2, 2016 - 9:33 PM

          Oh, I love that Jane. And I love doing it for my clients too. Those are cherished pieces and it’s so wonderful to keep them and then hand them down. Thank you for such a kind comment!

  • KG - March 15, 2016 - 12:05 PM

    Thank you so much for this incredibly informative post! another wonderful post!ReplyCancel

  • Deb - March 14, 2016 - 8:12 PM

    Gor-Geous! Just found your blog today, and the discovery has made my day. You have some awesome eye candy in here. Your latest blog post makes me want to redo my staircase tomorrow. Can’t wait to read all the back posts! I may be up all night! 😉ReplyCancel

  • Diane Johanson - March 14, 2016 - 9:34 AM

    What a great tutorial! Who know wallpaper could be laminated?? As a former iron stair builder I have had the opportunity to renovate some really old, ornate cast iron railings (to bring up to code). So much fun! I took some of the leftover parts and made myself a cool trellis.ReplyCancel

  • Lara - March 14, 2016 - 12:19 AM

    I have wall to wall carpet on my stairs, hardwood floors downstairs and wall to wall carpet upstairs. I like that the stairs are completely soft and cushy but notice you don’t show any stairs with carpet except for the one that looks like grass which clearly is ghastly. Do you think carpeted stairs can sometimes work with the right carpet? I am planning to replace the carpet upstairs and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg getting hardwood on the stairs plus a runner. And anyway like I said I like having cushy stairs that if someone falls, such as my husband’s parents who often visit, they won’t kill themselves. Also we have oak banisters and spindles. I’m thinking that painting the spindles black and leaving the oak as is would be a low impact way to update the look or perhaps just staining the wood darker to match the floor on 1st floor (which is darker than the old fashion 90’s oak). Opinions on that? Thanks!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 14, 2016 - 12:35 PM

      Hi Lara,

      The only situation where I would do wall to wall is if there is a wall on both sides and the stair case is quite narrow. Usually, that’s confined to back staircases and those going to the basement. If it’s open on one side, there’s just no way to finish it off if completely covered other than wrapping it around the tread as with the grass carpet.

      You can still have a very cushy runner, just will have a wood margin. I think it’s a more elegant look for most staircases. Of course, if there’s no finished tread and riser, you would have to have that done. There’s a link in the post for one company that provides that. I can’t vouch for them either.

      As for the rest, not being able to see your home it’s impossible to advise the best solution for your stair railing.ReplyCancel

  • Heather Bates - March 13, 2016 - 2:40 PM

    Great article, Laurel! So glad to finally meet you at DBC 🙂

    Only thing with stairs is making sure older people with not as good eyesight can’t easily see the edge of each stair. We left our oak staircase plain (which the installer loved as the builder put in puny runners -I also grew up with this) My 71 yr old MIL was not to happy to go down them, so I often had to go up to help her down. A busily patterned runner would not be my choice, if you have elders who stay with you often. Tone on tone, with banded edges, would allow them to see the edge of the stairs much better IMHO.ReplyCancel

    • Ann - March 14, 2016 - 12:29 AM

      I have to second this! I am not elderly (yet) but have poor eyesight and neuropathy in my feet. I almost fell down my daughter’s stairs because everything ran together. She painted just the riser white and fixed that problem – the stairs are stained dark. Going up is a snap – good lighting needed when coming down.ReplyCancel

      • Laurel Bern - March 14, 2016 - 12:37 PM

        Hi Ann,

        I forgot to put this in the post, but for most staircases, the riser should be white! The only exceptions are for a more rustic hunting lodge look or if everything is painted one color. But usually, if there is white moulding, the riser should be white too.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 8:52 PM

      Hi Heather! I enjoyed meeting you too! That was a fun evening we had and I’m so glad it was arranged.

      That makes sense regarding the stair runner patterns. ReplyCancel

  • Jenny - March 13, 2016 - 2:02 PM

    Such an amazing and informative post. Thank you, Laurel!
    Staircases don’t like me, and the feeling started to be mutual, lol, so all the information is highly appreciated.
    I’m in awe of these hand drawn details. I was at the exhibition once..Getty museum, the exhibition was of hand-written and hand illustrated prayer books of medieval times. I remember this exhibition very vividly ten years later. Great talent never ceases to amaze.
    PS Was so happy to learn that you won!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 8:50 PM

      Thanks Jenny! I was shocked that I won anything! There were people who were in the prelim nominations who should’ve made the finals and did not. So, to win is a tremendous honor!ReplyCancel

  • Teri - March 13, 2016 - 11:28 AM

    I just painted my railings white and the base and handrails black. That first picture you posted of the all black staircase made me drool. I’m thinking of repainting my rails black now. Are there any no-no’s with that? I am worried about balance because all my trim is white.

    Great post.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 8:47 PM

      Thanks Teri. Without seeing the entire situation and what else is going on architecturally and with colors and furnishings, it’s impossible to say whether it’s a good idea or not.

      One thing you might try is to take a photo of your stair case and include as much as you can of other things. Then, you could put the photo in a free program like pic monkey and “paint” the rail black to see how you like it. It won’t be perfect but it’ll give an ideaReplyCancel

  • Victoria - March 13, 2016 - 11:11 AM

    Love your posts and the information you provide!!!ReplyCancel

  • Abby - March 13, 2016 - 10:33 AM

    Very timely article for me as I’m literally in the middle of building a house and am befuddled by what to do with the staircase. We have a 5″ wide with a 90 degree turn ( it goes to a finshed walkout basemnt) 1/4 way down with a landing.

    First question, i assume “hollywood” style carpet tack down is preferable to waterfall, just confirm. I currently have waterfall in my house and i always wonder what lives in the little tent formed by the waterfall….feaks me out!

    I have a huge tall wallspace to contend with viewable from the dinningroom which has a railing and overlooks the stairwell. Its also viewable from the front door. So the wall is important and wallpaper sort of scared me. I toyed with stone, but too late in the building process for that. i’m toying with contemporary wood veneer panel as an idea. Just basically flumoxxed!

    Thanks so much for all the inspiration I’ve gotten over the last year from your blogs!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 8:44 PM

      Hi Abby,

      I think I got the gist of that. I do prefer the Hollywood style. Sometimes if the moulding under the tread is big it’s a little more difficult. Sorry, I can’t help with your big wall because that would be a consult which I’m not doing long-distance right now.ReplyCancel

  • joanne dimeff - March 13, 2016 - 10:25 AM

    I know sisal is a nightmare, but people are always in love with their seagrass! I just installed a polypropylene stairway runner that looks just like sisal and has the same large diamond pattern as your photo. Not as sumptuous as the real thing, but worry-free for heavy traffic. I called the technical department at the factory (Stanton I think) and they said this polypropylene won’t “ugly out” like the cut pile rugs of the 90s because it’s not cut pile –but more like a berber. I think the tighter the weave, though, the better. We’ve had it 2 months and it’s perfect so far..ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:52 PM

      Hi Joanne,

      Thanks for sharing that info!

      We recently did a polypropylene (indoor/outdoor) runner on a staircase and it looks wonderful. It doesn’t look like sisal but it’s a nice diamond pattern and very practical!ReplyCancel

  • Cynthia Lambert - March 13, 2016 - 10:11 AM

    From a housekeeping viewpoint, painting the banister rail is a huge mistake. You end up cleaning the whole rail from top to bottom once a week and it’s a chore. Dirt/oils from hands stick to paint like a magnet. Stain and varnish on a wooden handrail doesn’t get dirty like that. The Hollywood style of runner is much preferable and looks more finished. And there is an even higher end installation that sees the runner actually cut at each stair so the end can be tailored to fit exactly under each tread. It looks divine. And those that painted their whole staircases black will live to regret it, and very soon. It’s a short-lived trend that they will curse when they have to remove all that black paint from every inch of the staircase within the next 5 years.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:50 PM

      Hi Cynthia,

      I agree wholeheartedly on the first two points. The third point in most cases, yes. I think the black stairs only works in old homes and mostly in a more urban setting. The other problem I forgot to mention is that a dark floor is going to show every speck of dust, footprint, etc. Definitely a runner for the stairs.

      Going into it, it’s a bit of a risk. Have to say I do love the painted handrails. Perhaps in a home with few living in it and a cleaning lady. lolReplyCancel

      • Eleanor - March 14, 2016 - 4:27 PM

        I have been contemplating between painting my bannister and interior doors all black, using a Java/expresso stain, or painting BM Hasbrouck brown (BM claims it is the color of polished mahogany). Since I don’t live in an old or urban house (country House built in 1993), that helps me eliminate the black. Perhaps dark stains or other dark paint colors would be an option for those of us not in old or urban houses but who love the drama of the black staircase. Thanks for another great article that informed and made me laugh. You have a talent for finding the most hilarious examples of interior design gone wrong!
        P.s. My grandmother had carpet just like the staircase that needed mowing. It exists!ReplyCancel

        • Laurel Bern - March 14, 2016 - 10:51 PM

          Hi Eleanor,

          I’m not sure if I would do the dark brown colors either. In fact, I think black would be preferable. It really depends what else is going on.

          But of course, it’s impossible for me to know since I can’t see the situation. I think if you’re going to do dark colors on doors, it needs to be balanced out by a pretty deep color on the walls. It may not be the look you’re going for.

          One thing that helps me is to look on pinterest to see if someone else has done it already.

        • Eleanor - March 15, 2016 - 8:10 PM

          Thanks Laurel!! I’ll check out Pinterest.

  • Wendy H - March 13, 2016 - 9:06 AM

    There are so many nice vinyl wallpapers out there. Thibaut is a great source. Also Osborn & Little just came out with a new vinyl series that is so nice.ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:42 PM

      Hi Wendy,
      Those are the sources for the ones in the post! Maybe you didn’t notice. That would be me. I often gloss through the words and miss stuff!ReplyCancel

  • Ginny - March 13, 2016 - 7:15 AM

    Laurel: another fact/fun post and just in time! My daughter’s family and I just moved to your neck of the woods and they bought a wonderful old colonial we are respectfully updating. Having just stripped the front stairs, we were hunting through Pins to find a solution to a new runner. We love natural sea grass etc. but also worried about slipping. Wool plus natural fiber is a great solution! Can’t wait to show her your offerings and we are also smitten with your fav paint: BM/Cotton Ball. Beautiful in the Bronxville light!ReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:41 PM

      Hi Ginny,

      Welcome to Bronxville! Yes, B’ville loves Cotton Balls! I know that we did seagrass a number of years ago. It was a replacement for a cotton runner that failed miserably. Live and learn! I didn’t hear any complaints. Family of 5 and a big dog. I think it held up really well.ReplyCancel

  • Kelly @ mysoulfulhome - March 13, 2016 - 12:41 AM

    Laurel – great post as always. Do tell the source on the grass cloth ( dare I say vinyl ) papers. I like the pale blue/wheat colored heathery one best.
    Thanks, KellyReplyCancel

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:54 AM

      Hi Kelly,

      All of the papers except for for the first one are from Thibaut.ReplyCancel

  • Judy Latcha - March 13, 2016 - 12:15 AM

    There are some stunning commercial wall papers that I would have directed to this inquiry. Since they are 54″ wide there are less seams to brush against and a Type II would be ideal for her situation. MDC Wallcoverings & DL Couch both are favorite lines of mine having gorgeous upscale designs that I use often in high traffic residential applications.

    Many thanks for the great blog posts!

    • Laurel Bern - March 13, 2016 - 12:26 AM

      oops! I left out the part of her email that said she wanted something more traditional, but good to know about that in case it comes up. It’s not too late. I’ll make sure she sees the post and comments. And I love it when there’s something I haven’t covered that someone brings up. I try to keep the posts from being achingly long. Thanks Judy!ReplyCancel