This column is just for you. Every other week I’ll answer one of your interior design questions. Just send me an email with your question and I’ll reply right here. This week’s question:
We have a two-story house with open stairs. Should we close them? What can we do with the wasted space beneath them?
Your open stairs lead me to a few open-ended questions. What is the style of your house? Is your staircase an architectural focal point and, if not, do you want it to be? Do you need more storage or additional space to meet other needs? How nimble are you on your feet?
First, a few words about the advantages of open stairs. Since there are no risers (the vertical pieces that connect two horizontal treads to each other), you can see through your staircase. This gives a sense of openness and, depending on the location of your windows, can allow more sunlight into your space.
An open staircase most definitely works well with modern or industrial architecture. But I can also see it in Craftsman or farmhouse settings especially if the treads are made with thicker wood. Open stairs, carefully-paired with the other parts of a staircase such as the rails, stringers, and balusters, can be eye-catching, statement-making and visually stunning.
The disadvantage of open stairs is that they seem more dangerous, especially for children or those of a certain older age. I don’t know if there are any statistics to prove this or if it’s just my imagination. However, it’s something to think about. What is proven, however, is that they don’t allow for built-in cabinetry or other storage beneath them.
Depending on the configuration of your staircase, the footprint below it, and the presence of any adjacent walls, closing it in with risers may leave you with several options. One is to build cabinets with shelves and/or drawers in the sizes and shapes that best fit their intended contents. Or, you could close off the entire space with doors and use it for unsightly storage, alone. If water and electrical access is available, these doors could even hide a washer and dryer.
If the space allows, you could build a bench with a storage drawer beneath it. The bench could be part of a reading nook with a comfortable seat cushion and a few throw pillows. (Add electrical for a wall sconce in this case). You probably also have a little room above the bench for shallow, floating shelves to hold a few books.
If your stairs are close to a back-entry door, the drawer could be used for mud or rain boots, hats, and umbrellas. If they are close to a front entry door, you may want to close the space with drywall and paint (or another wall treatment like wallpaper or Stikwood) and set a console table and mirror, or art, in front of it.
Does it make sense, and do you have room, to build a small desk under your stairs? If there is an adjacent and perpendicular wall, you could possibly build a corner desk with shelves mounted on that exposed, extended wall. You’d want to add electrical access in this case as well.
There are ups and downs (I’ve been waiting to say that) to open and closed stairs. Hopefully, the above suggestions will help you in making a decision.