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Showcase Stair | Apartment


A Showcase Stair in a luxury apartment is located in 1) a lobby, as a grand stair that represents an apartment’s style, and/or 2) a private unit as a sculptural and/or dematerialized stair.


Showcase Stairs in luxury apartments share some similarities with Showcase Stairs in retail store settings. Researcher Leah Scolere defined a Showcase Stair in retail as the most significant architectural element, affording a high degree of visual access. In some cases, the stair also becomes an iconic symbol of the store’s brand or location. The functionality of the stair… is secondary to the spatial drama that is created by form, materiality, and visual access of the stair.”1 

Showcase stairs in historic and contemporary luxury apartments are also grand in size, scale, materials and visual access. Located in public lobbies, their function is less about circulation than they are about visual access and making a strong architectural statement. Similarly a dramatic or sculptural stair can transform simple box-shaped spaces into one with architectural character.

Stair Types in Luxury Apartments
There are two types of stairs in luxury apartments—a grand staircase located in the lobby-entrance space and an internal-stair located within a private apartment.

Grand Staircases in Apartment Lobbies
A grand staircase in a public lobby is symbolic, a “Staircase of Honor,”2  used for ceremonial purposes. As in retail design, it serves as a prominent architectural feature, an icon that represents an apartment’s stylistic intentions.  A Showcase Stair in the lobby may also convey the aspirations of the management or clientele in terms of class status. A grand stair defined the boundary between general public areas on the ground floor and private areas (for residents only) in upper levels.

The oldest record of a grand staircase in apartments may prove to be the Eastern Apartments (1450-1370 B.C.E.) in the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete. The stair was located approximately at the middle of the east side of the Central Court and led to the state rooms. A light-well immediately adjoined the stair amplifying its spaciousness and grandeur.3  The walls were decorated with painted murals that included bands of running spirals—superimposed with full-sized replicas of the characteristic Minoan figure eight shields, in the case of the upper hall. The Grand Staircase at Knossos contained many of the elements that remain today—a sense of grandeur in terms of materials and finishes, decorative treatments and ornament, size and scale. Grand staircases from this time forward have also been lit by natural lighting.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods a grand stair was contained in its own distinctive container connected to, but separate from, adjacent volumes. Historian and theorist John Templar describes the solution as “inherently static in terms of spatial flow—one entered the stairhouse and was entertained by its theatrical devices to draw one’s attention to the stair and to the top and bottom.”4

In the early 18th century, a grand stair became the first impression of the luxury French apartment. In 1702 Pierre Bullet designed a stair as a staged experience.5  The grand staircase had two large stair “stages” from the entrance on the ground floor that led to the great antechamber which preceded the salon upstairs. At the first stage, the straight stair is full of light and has stunning views from French windows that open onto the garden. Then the large opening of the stairs narrows between two decorative columns. It opens again to a grand opening, and terminates with elegant curvilinear stairs with fashionable rounded corners.

Early luxury New York apartments, such as Richard Morris Hunt’s Stuyvesant Apartments on East 18th Street, interpreted the French apartment style of grand stairs. In an described the tenant’s stages of entry as arriving first in a “sparely decorated lobby and from the lobby they went to the grand stairway and reached their own front doors from either end of a public landing.”6  The stairway opened into the private hall of each unit. The stairway toward the front of the building rose around a circular open well in the center (often filled with natural light), while the service stairway in the rear was a tight spiral. The grand stair in the Stuyvesant Apartments is not much as magnificent and elegant as French apartments, but reminiscent of typical features of Parisian grand stair design.

In the 1880 and 1800 decades European staircase designers dispensed with previous historic points of reference. The Art Nouveau style consisted of an architectural language containing a highly imaginative vocabulary of decorative motifs. Antonio Gaudi’s curvilinear staircase at the Casa Batllo apartment in Barcelona, is such a work. Gaudi “sculpted” each of the materials he employed (stone, brick, wood, metal, broken ceramics), modeling his stairs in flowing, three-dimensional forms as though all were clay.7

With the installation of electric elevators in the 1880s, luxury apartment buildings expanded in number of stories, and grand staircases tended to be subordinated functionally. They continued, however, to appear in public lobbies, but connected only the first floor to the second floor. Nonetheless, the grand stair continued to be regarded as a status symbol. For a while elevators and grand stairs coexisted in elegant lobbies. For example, in 1909 Harde and Short’s design for a New York apartment at 44 West 77th Street, consisted of a Gothic-style groin vaulted lobby, with stone foyers and passenger elevators.8  By the end of the 20th century, apartment skyscrapers replaced those less than fifteen stories, and the grand stair disappeared from the lobby, replaced with a passenger elevator.

In 1951, Mies van der Rohe designed the first high-rise apartment building of the International Style at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments on Lake Michigan in Chicago. Mies banked the elevators and staircases in a large box in the center of the lobbies. The minimalist composition facilitated maximum freedom of the lobby interior. The skin-and-bone expression of the steel I-beams and glass windows allow the elevator and staircase bank to be seen from exterior.9 

Internal-Apartment Stairs
The second type of stair in luxury apartments is located in the interior of a two-story apartment. In the 1880s European apartments tended to be duplexes with double-height ceilings. The stair was to reproduce as closely as possible the atmosphere of a private (noble) house. When the principal rooms were relocated from their traditional place on the ground floor to the piano nobile, access to the second floor became much more important. The staircase from the ground plane to the piano nobile grew in size and magnificence, designed to make the transition and the upper floors as imperceptible a spatial barrier as possible.10 

In American luxury apartments of the 1920 decade, particularly those built in New York City, internal stairs for each residence grew larger and grander, such as the palatial apartment at 666 Park Avenue, decorated by William R. Pearsall, J. Layng Mills and F. Burrall Hoffman. From the first floor, a grand oval staircase consisting of a flight of broad marble steps, swept past a mezzanine, where the plans called for two guest rooms, five servants’ rooms and extensive storage. The stair continued up to the fourth floor with elaborate decoration. Also there were two sets of back stairs, one accessing an intermediate demi-mezzanine over the butler’s pantry for storing china and glassware, and general receiving area adjoining the goods elevator, the kitchen and the pantry. The main grand stair was completely distinguished from the functional stairs, making the apartment a palatial space.11

In Europe spiral stairs became a popular internal stair type in the 17th and 18th centuries. Functionally, they occupied little space; the entry and exit points were not far apart, as they were for straight flight stairs, so finding a place to locate them was relatively simple. Aesthetically internal spiral stairs in luxury apartments were also symbolic of an owner’s status. Each unit of the luxury New York apartment at 1185 Park Avenue, designed by Schwarts and Gross in 1929, included a spiral stair located in the spacious entrance gallery. An elegant spiral stair led people from the ground floor to a sun parlor, giving the apartment’s interior a particularly gracious ambience.12 

The Modernists liked a spiral stair, because of its functionalism. It conserved square footage, reduced opportunities for excessive ornamentation, and contrasted the notion of a grand staircase.13  The new techniques in concrete, cast iron, steel and glass opened up new opportunities for modern stairs. At the beginning of the 1930s, Le Corbusier designed a startlingly stylish spiral stair with a central glass newel post for the Charles de Beistegui’s apartment in Paris. The stair led from the movie room to a roof terrace. Of all the architect’s original features, the stair design garnered much attention for its singular elegance, as well as its ability to compete visually and sculpturally with Baroque furnishings in the house.14  In modern houses internationally, spiral stairs are credited with transforming “dismal holes into sculptural objects.”15

In the development of materials and technology, the articulation of the stair became increasingly refined and even more sophisticated in detail.16  Ward Bennett’s 1970s remodel of a historical New York duplex apartment (converted servants’ quarters on the top level of the Dakota), included an open spiral showcase stair. The stair had no solid walls; only a central steel newel post supported each tread, making the stair visually and physically lighter, and also greatly expressive. On the ground plane, it created a spatial dynamism. From above it resembled a three-dimensional fan that transformed into an undulating ribbon on the lower story.17

In 1989, Michael Gabellini designed a spiral stair that seeming floats in space. Located on the 20th and 21th floors of a New York apartment, the stair has been characterized as more dynamic and ethereal than Corbusier’s. Gabellini’s stair creates a sleek, fluid line that connects the day area with the lower bedroom story by dissolving the solid walls and newel. The staircase is arranged as a sequence of suspended slabs. The exceptional marble band of its form is unusually light in its design, almost a papery volume.18  The marble treads are almost immaterial, like “overlaid sheets of paper that comply with the trajectory of the supporting framework.”19 

The 1936 Le Courbusier spiral stair for a Paris apartment, Ward Bennett’s 1979 spiral for an apartment in the Dakota, New York City, and Michael Gabellini’s 1989 interpretation, also in New York City, can be read as a sequence of design reiterations, each stair becoming more sculptural and abstract through time. From the 1990s forward the dematerialization of the spiral stair influenced the design other stair types in efforts to make them appear free floating or suspended in space. Showcase stairs have taken on countless lightweight shapes, refined details, and transparent materials. Functionally and aesthetically, these contemporary showcase stairs allow limited square-footage apartment interiors to save space, to allow natural light to penetrate deeper into spaces, and to create dynamic spatial effects.

An open plan for apartments encouraged the design of ethereal showcase stairs in the center of a space. The visual accessibility of stairs enhances the concept of openness through materiality and forms. For example, each stair tread is fixed parallel to the wall to the second floor without handrail, a single sheet of steel was folded together, or showcase stairs made of glass and steel plate is hung from the ceiling. Therefore, these contemporary showcase stairs achieve a high visibility and heighten both the awareness of one’s own presence and the experience inside the showcase stairs.

Only a single sheet of steel resolves the linkage between two levels of a Milan apartment living room (1995) designed by Guilaume Saalburg. Set slightly shy of a wall, the staircase rises on a central support system to which the “wafer-like steps” of bent metal have been welded, each comprising an individual modular element of the whole. This is elaborately hidden by a curved plate of shining steel, which sustains slender steps made of bent copper plate that ascend in an apparently continuous flow. Attached to the frame-work is the tubular stainless steel handrail, whose smooth flowing spiral terminates in exquisite volutes. This showcase stair coordinates the construction of various metal materials with their shifting, glistening, metallic effects.20  Another Guilaume Saalburg design (1997), this time for a Paris apartment, features a free-floating glass showcase stair. Vertical glass panels are suspended from the ceiling and horizontal glass treads are in turn fixed between the glass panels. This detail, seen from the side, shows that they are in fact held in place by metal shoes, which are then screwed to metal straps on the other side of the glass wall. The glass showcase stair is completely detached from the floor and appears to be floating in space.21  The showcase stair allows visual access from all sides and opens up to be seen and let see.22

A hanging stair made of steel gives a spatial dynamic to one of Mies Van Der Rohe’s renowned Lake Shore Drive Apartments by visually connecting two levels. The staircase is lightweight and amplifies the heights of the floors. A single asymmetrical brushed steel beam is set into the floor above and fixed to two hidden pillars. This element provides support for the cantilevered steps made of the same material.23 

The grand stair of luxury apartment lobbies has been a symbolic architectural element of sometimes monumental proportions and multifarious decorative ornaments. The dramatic spatial character of lobby stairs are also evidenced in private units. As one of the principle interior features of luxury apartments, both locations of stairs provide interiors with rich materials and dynamic expressions, whether they are a grand stair, spiral stair or dematerialized stair.24

end notes

  1. 1) Leah Scolere, “Theory Studies: Contemporary Retail Design” (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2004), 68.
  2. 2) Julien Guadet, Elements et Theorie de l’Architecture (Paris: Librarie de la Construction Moderne, 1905), n.p.
  3. 3) John Templer, The Staircase: History and Theories (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 94-95.
  4. 4) Templer, The Staircase, 122-128.
  5. 5) Peter Thornton, Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior, 1620-1920 (New York: Viking, 1984), 94-95.
  6. 6) “Houses on the European Plan,” (Nov. 6, 1869): 3 in Elizabeth Collins Cromley, Alone Together: A History of New York's Early Apartments (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 88.
  7. 7) Stephen Calloway, Twentieth-Century Decoration (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), 48-49; Staircase, Casa Batllo Apartment [1906] Antonio Gaudi; Barcelona in Stephen Calloway, Twentieth-Century Decoration, 48-49.
  8. 8) Andrew Alpern, New York’s Luxury Apartments: With Original Floor Plans from the Dakota, River House, Olympic Tower and Other Great Buildings (New York: Dover, 1975), 60-61.
  9. 9) Werner Blaser, Mies van der Rohe--Lake Shore Drive Apartments: High-Rise Building (Basel: Birkha¨user, 1999), 11, 14-15.
  10. 10) Templer, The Staircase, 1-11, 95, 119-120. A piano nobile is the principal floor of a large house, usually built in one of the styles of classical Renaissance architecture. This floor contains the principal reception and bedrooms of the house. The piano nobile is often the first or sometimes the second floor, located above a ground floor containing minor rooms and service rooms. The upper floors had better views and avoided the damp ground plane.
  11. 11) Alpern, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, 124-129.
  12. 12) Alpern, New York’s Luxury Apartments, 116-117.
  13. 13) Eva Jiricna, Staircases (London: Calmann & King Ltd, 2001), 13.
  14. 14) Calloway, Twentieth-Century Decoration, 268.
  15. 15) Templer, The Staircase, 60; Living Room [1936] Le Corbusier; Paris in "Fantasy on the Roof of Paris," Architectural Review (April 1936): 155.
  16. 16) Michael Spens, Staircases (London: Academy Editions, 1995), 10.
  17. 17) Living Room, Dakota Apartment [1979] Ward Bennett, New York in “Soothing, Serene, Civilized,” Interior Design (Sep.1979): 246.
  18. 18) Matteo Vercelloni and Silvio San pietro, Urban Interiors in New York (Milano: Edizioni L’Archivolto, 1996), 52-61.
  19. 19) Silvio San Pietro and Paola Gallo, Stairs: Scale (Milano: Edizioni L’Archivolto, 2002), 96-99; Bedroom [1989] Michael Gabellini, New York in Oscar Riera Ojeda, "Dente Residence," The New American Apartment (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1997), 232.
  20. 20) San Pietro and Gallo, Stairs: Scale, 202-203; Living room [1995] Guilaume Saalburg, Milan, Italy in Eva Jiricna, Staircases, 202-203.
  21. 21) Jiricna, Staircases, 66-69.
  22. 22) Scolere, “Theory Studies: Contemporary Retail Design,” 69; Living Room [1997] Guilaume Saalburg; Paris in Eva Jiricna, Staircases (London: Calmann & King Ltd, 2001), 66-9.
  23. 23) San Pietro and Gallo, Stairs: Scale, 106-109; Living room, 860 Lake Shore Apartment [unknown date] Krueck and Sexton, Chicago in “Kitchen Cabinet,” Interior Design 68, no.4 (Mar.1997): 77.
  24. 24) 1930 Paris Apartment [1936] Le Courbusier; Paris, France in "Fantasy on the Roof of Paris," Architectural Review, no.473 (April 1936):155. 1970 Paris Apartment, Charles Boxenbaum; Paris, France in "Apartment by Charles Boxenbaum," Architectural Record (Jan. 1979): 109.; New York Apartment, Ward Bennett; New York City in “Sooting, Serene, Civilized,” Interior Design 50, no.9 (Sept.1979): 246.; 1980 New York Apartment [1989] Michael Gabellini; New York City in Oscar Riera Ojeda, "Dente Residence," The New American Apartment (New York: Whitney Library of Design,1997), 232; Cooper Bauer Apartment [1988] Denison/Luchini Architects; Boston, Mass. in Oscar Riera Ojeda, The New American Apartment, 88., 1990 Milan Apartment [1995] Guilaume Saalburg; Milan, Italy in Eva Jiricna, Staircases (London: Calmann & King, 2001), 202-203; Chicago Apartment [1995] Valerio Dewalt Train Associates; Chicago in Oscar Riera Ojeda, "Gardner Apartment", The New American Apartment, 56.; 860 Lake Shore Apartment, Krueck and Sexton, Chicago, in Edie Lee Cohen “Krueck & Sexton,” Interior Design 61, no.3 (Mar. 1997); 7; New York Apartment, Maya Lin Studio; New York Cityh in "Norton Apartment," Architectural Record (Sept. 1999): 134; 2000 New York Apartment, Graftworks; New York City in “Stair Masters,” Interior Design 72, no.14 (Nov. 2001): 92; Sydney Apartment [2002] Engelenmoore; Sydney, Australia in Ana G. Canizares, New Apartments (New York: Collins Design, 200), 260; Rudolph Apartment, Jared Della Valle and Bernheimer in "Norton Apartment," New York 39, no.35 (Oct. 9, 2006): 54.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) Kim, Najung.“Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary Luxury Apartment Design.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2009, 102-118.