When interior designer Lisa Teague moved into a 640-square-foot brick row house in Portsmouth, N.H.’s, Atlantic Heights neighborhood, she looked for ways to wedge style into every inch of space. After all, in a small home, Teague pointed out, “it’s important to make a statement when you can.”
A prime target was the old wooden staircase, which sat directly opposite the front door. She removed the enclosing walls to create a feeling of more spaciousness on the first floor and planned to dress up the stairs in shades of white, blue, and gray. Then, on a trip to Guatemala, she fell in love with a more daring color palette. The result: The stairway became a cascade of warm apricots, greens, and blues applied with a watered-down glaze. “That’s how I got away with using so many colors,” she said. “They’re very soft and watercolor-y.”
Even design novices know that a coat or two of paint is the least expensive and easiest way to change a space’s look, but most of the time their attention is fixated on the walls. Designers remember to consider what’s going on underfoot. The unexpected use of paint on the floor translates to irresistible eye candy online, and thanks to the popularity of such projects on design-centric blogs and websites such as Houzz and Apartment Therapy, color-brushed floors and stairs are a look on the rise. It’s not a new tactic, of course; the painted-plank look has been around since the Middle Ages, when wood floors first became widespread. For modern homeowners with a bit of gumption and not much cash, sprucing up old wood with new paint is an easy way to inject personality and upgrade a room.
New-to-the-market paint formulations are also driving the trend. Exterior deck and porch paint has traditionally been the go-to choice for floors, said Wellesley designer Andra Birkerts , but “the color spectrum was pretty narrow.” More recently, she has turned to firms such as Farrow & Ball and Fine Paints of Europe, which offer floor-ready paints “with a whole array of different colors in very pigmented formulas.”
Such paints provide much improved durability, but they still aren’t impervious in the way, say, a laminated floor would be. For the “incredibly meticulous,” Birkerts wouldn’t recommend the look: “If you urethaned a painted floor many, many times — similar to the way they ‘finish’ laminated floors — you would also have a highly durable floor, except it would look somewhat encased in plastic.” Still, she said, complaints are more common from clients who have had light floors finished in a dark stain than those who have had them painted. “People who respond to painted floors tend to be a little bit more willing to realize it might get a scratch ... and some kind of wear and tear,” she said. “They like the charm. It’s a certain kind of mind-set.”
That somewhat informal vibe works well in beach or country homes, Birkerts observed. In a Cape Ann project, she deployed a pale-aqua tone as a restful underpinning to a bedroom with a water view and a more vibrant blue for the floor in a bunk room.
While painting floors can be fairly straightforward, staircases require a bit of design work. Do you paint the risers (the vertical surface), the treads (the horizontal surface), or both? Consider context carefully, Birkerts advised, ”whether the space is grand and it needs some focus, or the space is so small that you need something to give it little personality.” On a steep stairway in a narrow hall, she said, “the riser becomes almost a wall, and you can use paint to call attention to it.” On a more spacious set of steps, “painting the treads gives you a spark of color that’s nice. It’s kind of pixelated as you go up.”
For the steep front-hall staircase in a client’s 19th-century home, Northampton designer Sally Staub suggested painting the risers with an attention-grabbing ombre treatment in shades of pink. “The entryway is the first impression of a house,” Staub said. The walls were gray, the dining room a pinkish red. “Pink and gray is a fun and unexpected color combination,” she said. She worked with the client to pick a base color, then had her painter add a bit more white as he painted the risers from bottom to top. The result: “When you open the front door, you’re greeted with this explosion of color — a statement that added a lot of personality.”
It’s not a look for everyone, but for this adventurous client, the effect was just right. “She was totally gung-ho to make it exciting and punchy,” Staub said. For a similar staircase in her own 100-plus-year-old home, Staub chose a more restrained scheme of black risers and white treads. Combined with yellow walls, the painted flight “gives the space some drama and high contrast,” she said.
A set of entryway stairs also provides a focal point for the home of Tamar Schechner, a jewelry designer in Shelburne, Vt., and owner of Nest Pretty Things. When she and her husband bought the “very ordinary raised ranch,” the stairs were plywood covered with old carpeting — “really horrific,” she said. Not wanting to invest in a new staircase, they went with paint, opting for a cheery green inspired by their verdant Vermont surroundings. They primed and then applied “three pretty thick coats,” she recalled, “and we dried it for at least a week, so it was really nice and sturdy. We really waited a long time until it really cured.”
Through almost a dozen winters and the raising of three boys, “the stairs have held up amazingly well.” The splash of emerald greets visitors and makes a fitting introduction for their bright home, its white walls accented with color-soaked textiles and artwork. Painting the stairs elevated the whole home’s look, she said. “We really made something out of nothing.”
Beyond extending color into a workaday spot, paint can be used to mimic tiles or rugs, creating a bit of trompe l’oeil delight. On a staircase in the Washington, D.C.-area home of design bloggers Heather and Dave Thomas of heatherednest.com, a painted “runner” lends a crisp and clever note. It was a choice born out of necessity, Heather said. “We had some very dated stairs made out of pine, which is not a type of wood that stains well. We were faced with several very expensive options, including ripping them out and starting over or covering them with carpet. Both of these were beyond our meager budget.”
Inspired by an article in This Old House magazine, the pair launched into DIY mode, covering the steps with a glossy white, then using painter’s tape to mark off a runner, which was finished in gray. The results, which they show off in a popular and helpfully detailed how-to post on their blog, are stunning. After nearly three years, the stairs still look fresh and get tons of online and in-person love. Not a shabby outcome, Heather noted, for a project that cost less than $100 and took just a weekend to complete — and most of that time was spent literally watching paint dry.
Debra Jo Immergut is a Massachusetts-based design writer. Connect with her on Twitter @debraimmergut or send comments to Address@globe.com.