Friday, March 2, 2012

the stairs

Yes, I know, at long last.

So as I may have mentioned, I stenciled my stairs. (Now I'm working on the finishing-touches list of 900 million other things to do before the party. And I really need a nap.) They used to look like this:

The warm color on the faux wood grain (no, that is not stain) was actually a good color for the space (as I later realized). However, the paint was starting to come off, so I knew they would need repainting:

In these pictures, I had already painted the walls in the stairwell that light blue color. Formerly, they were yellow sponge-painted, exactly like this:

(That's the bedroom the stairs open into. And that is a BEFORE picture, people.)

Once upon a time, when we were still searching for a house and I was hoarding on all the pictures I could find of what lovely houses should look like, I saved this picture, and realized that when I looked at that staircase, I felt loved:

Elegance & Decay eclectic
I have an oddly emotional relationship with home decor. Yes, therapy is still an ongoing consideration - but you tell me that stairs like these wouldn't render therapy totally superfluous.

Anyway, I didn't exactly go around looking for a house onto which I could project all of these little ideas; I just thought they would help me understand the full potential of similarly-structured spaces which were confounding me because their full potential had not been remotely realized.

Later, I realized that this house has an essentially similar staircase. OK, there are a few key distinctions. One is that our service stairs live behind a door, which will most often be closed (its swing takes up too much room in a small kitchen, and since it is missing those first two steps, it is not the most useful set of stairs). Another, which is my fault, is that I am already painting the kitchen yellow, so painting the adjacent stair-wall a different shade of yellow (i.e., the one in the picture) is out. I could paint the stair-wall the same yellow as the kitchen, so I am actually pondering repainting it, but I'm not sure I want the staircase to be an extension of the kitchen. To be determined.

Anyway, as I was painting the walls blue, I looked down at the worn paint on the steps and realized it needed repainting. I thought a nice dark charcoal would be nice - the black in my inspiration photo would be too dark for a little-lit space, but maybe charcoal would be near the mark.

Then I saw this.

I did think that it would be nice to give the stairwell a little bit of visual interest. I was already planning a modest little gallery wall (as, in my view, that is the most essential element in the inspiration photo), but why not decorate the stairs themselves? First I went to the big orange store to get the porch-and-floor paint, since this was something I was going to have to do either way and represented no waste of money on the artsy aspect of the project. I was going to tint it to a very dark gray, but my sister insisted that the stairwell was too dark to go any darker than "slate," one of the pre-mixed colors. So I went with that. I also bought some water-based (non-polyurethane) varnish, because it's "crystal-clear" rather than yellowing. I gather it's less durable than polyurethane, but like all water-based projects, it's also easier on the cleanup. It was $40 for a gallon, which is kind of a lot, but I figured I could use it for multiple projects, so in the great accounting ledger in my head, I could spread out the cost. I got the satin finish.

Then I bought a $3.99 stencil at A.C. Moore (like Michael's), because I could not imagine buying a giant stencil and bending the stenciled image around the edges of stairs (though some people on teh interwebz have done this), and it was the only image that came out positive (i.e., the second color of paint creates the image, rather than the first color) and was the right size for the stairs (which are very shallow). I used leftover paint from my living room walls to do the print; it's Behr's "dolphin fin."

My takeaway is, the woman in the blog post above has greater planning ability, patience, and talent than I have, and probably also had better tools and materials. I didn't start to make real progress until I accepted that my stenciling would not have thick enough paint to be truly opaque, and would have blurry edges. Once I decided to embrace the imperfection, the project went fast (two hours for all the stencils?), and I can't complain about the results:

Another look:

The bottom of the stairs:

My one concern is that this may simply be kitschy, and while I am trying to go for a low-key, somewhat less-ornate charm (the house hails from the Victorian-style period in American architecture, but is simple and humble in its design and ornamentation, and I want to complement that, not fight it), I am not trying to veer off the road straight into shabby chic or "country." Heaven preserve me from ornamental butter churns. Notthatthere'sanythingwrongwiththat and I have kind of always wanted a pie safe (but I don't have room in my kitchen) (and I would actually use it for storage, maybe even pies, so that makes it non-ornamental) but yeah, actually, no.

So I may have erred here; I find it hard to say.

But of course I didn't stop there. You remember that gallery wall I mentioned? This had been in the works, in the strange and hideous corners of my mind, for some time. First, I acquired a large and fabulous collection of real, sent and received, vintage postcards from my MIL, who was going to throw them out. (I get that; you can't keep stuff forever. But I'm so glad she gave me the refusal of them.) They were sent to and from members of her family (mostly her) half a century ago, and they hail from travels not only all over the Northeastern United States, but the rest of the country as well. And they showcase fascinating historic and religious sites and some really, really beautiful architecture (not just on public buildings, but modest-sized private homes as well) - the sort of thing that everyone took for granted before we as a nation started dropping acid and modern art happened to teach us a good lesson and we somehow utterly failed to learn it.

But I digress. Anyway, I have probably a couple hundred of them, but I pored over them and picked just twelve for my gallery wall. I had decided that I was going to use matting as frames for them, to save money (since there are quite a few of them) and also so that when they were hung, you could flip them around and read the messages on the back. I was toying with the notion of hanging them in rows connected by ribbon; hadn't got the idea all the way worked out. I looked for some appropriately-sized mats in Ikea, and that's when I stumbled upon their three-for-$2 unfinished wooden picture frames. The frames are fantastically simple, solid softwood (pine?), the exactly perfect size for the postcards (even though the postcards are smaller than contemporary postcards!), and, of course, inexpensive. I used Minwax gel stain (thank you Meg! It's the best thing ever!) in hickory to stain them. This worked to coordinate with one or two picture frames I already had, and the look I was going for:

And a bit of a close-up (sorry, I know, these are terrible pictures. Phone camera is a ghetto option, but I am telling you this is a hard space to photograph):

Since they come in raw wood, I actually think they'd really look cool with a colored stain or "whitewash" treatment (paint thinned with water) in maybe a blue or green, for a more whimsical (and somewhat more contemporary) look. For just a few dollars, you could do a row all the way down a long hallway, or even an entire wall COVERED with postcards, or photos, or little mementos. Lots of possibilities here!

I know, it's not at all exactly like my inspiration photo, and I know it's missing a certain something of the magic, but I think it was a reasonable success. Now, to work on getting some of that magic in in a few other places.

In the meantime, I am sharing my little project at Susan's Metamorphosis Monday, which you should totally visit.

On a completely unrelated note: looks like we've been approaching this problem wrong the whole time. Check it out.


  1. Oh, I am TOTALLY copying that on my basement stairs!!

  2. wow, i LOVE how they turned out! i also love the postcards...i have always wanted to a "gallery" wall like that but have never taken the time to plan it out.... looks so great!

  3. Oh, goodness, I have so much to say!

    1. I LOVE, love, love the stairs in your inspiration photo. I never would have imagined that painted stairs (black, no less) would look so warm and inviting. It's been added to my "to do" list for my dream home. Thanks!

    2. I also like your take on it. I am assuming the greenish photo is from bad lighting, and the gray is the color you used? Again, a surprising pick that I think is beautiful. :-)

    3. The sleep study/pattern? As far as conception goes -- AHA! I knew we were doing something wrong. I will have to give this a whirl...once the dr. mandated "no sex" rule is lifted, of course.

    4. I wake often at night and have a very hard time falling back asleep. This article in its entirety actually made a LOT of sense to me, and makes me feel a lot better about my adult insomnia. I don't usually get up, but I get very anxious about not being able to sleep. Maybe if I went to sleep a little earlier, and didn't focus on "needing" eight hours total, I would fare better? I really enjoyed the article -- thanks for sharing!

    Love and hugs,

  4. Do you mind if I am vicariously living through your house adventures? Your stairs look AMAZING!!!!

  5. loved the stairs! not kitchy at all...but what do i know. I love the postcards too but I think a more haphazard arrangement might be more visually interesting? i say that as i look at my totally ordered little frame wall...decor is not something i excel at but i enjoy looking at it!

  6. I love the stairs!! I don't think they look kitchy at all. With every picture you post, I seriously consider flying you out to my house for a complete home makeover.....when I tackle my bathroom reno I'm going to seek your design advice. I swear, you need your own HGTV show. I'd be hooked!!

  7. Nope- not one bit kitchy! I've been telling everyone this weekend about that article- fascinating.

  8. I like that! Your steps look great!

  9. that looks amazing! what a great transformation!

  10. Love the stencil! You are a no-reply commenter so when you asked the paint color of my dining room I couldn't email! Anyway, it's Benjamin Moore color matched to Charcoal from Christopher Peacock Paint (a fancy schmancy paint and cabinet company). I have the fan deck and their colors are ah-mazing.

    I happily have children now (3!) but was on the infertility bandwagon for quite a while before the first one, I love your posts, so real, it brings it all back! I'm now following you.

  11. The way the design makes that turn just adds the final touch of perfection.