The Spiral Staircase Pros and Cons & Its Controversial Role in the Design World

Our San Antonio Interior Designers and Architects Examine the Spiral Staircase Pros and Cons and Why It’s Such a Controversial Design Feature 

When it comes to spiral staircases, you either love them or hate them! Some of us are drawn to this architectural feature for the romantic appeal—referencing Victorian libraries and glamorous city loft apartments. Others feel that spiral staircases create a downward spiral into dizzying trips in painfully cramped quarters. So, why are spiral staircases so polarizing, and when is it appropriate to use them in residential design? Our San Antonio interior designers and architects examine the spiral staircase pros and cons, seeking to find why this feature is so controversial in the design world.

Why are Spiral Staircases So Controversial? 

Staircases play an important role in the home. As a critical feature of welcoming entryways, staircases become the backdrop to holiday and prom photos, in addition to creating a journey into the house. In many residential design plans, staircases become a focal point. While no one has particularly polarizing opinions on straight or L-shaped staircase styles, people hold strong beliefs about spiral staircases. We have had clients say they are fun, dangerous, beautiful, and quirky. The only objective thing about spiral staircases may be the building code regulations applied to them! (In most cities, these codes require a five-foot diameter of clearance.) Our San Antonio residential design team looks to the pros and cons to find answers to the spiral staircase controversy.  

The Pros of Spiral Staircases

Space Saving Solution

While spiral staircases may provide quirky charm in some design schemes, they are, first and foremost, a practical design solution. Spiral staircases take us from one level in a home to another without taking up valuable floor space, which is a necessity in smaller living areas. Unlike the dramatic staircase in Gone with the Wind that demands its own room, spiral staircases stack on top of themselves—leaving room for more important things. 

Gone with the Wind Stairs
Gone with the Wind Staircase

Safe Design 

Some people consider spiral staircases dangerous (or at least intimidating) due to their twists and turns. However, when properly designed to code, spiral staircases can actually be safer than a straight staircase. In the event of a trip, spiral staircases provide more opportunities to catch oneself because of the stacked design. 

Unique Focal Point

Spiral staircases are not commonly seen in many homes, which is why they make for beautiful and unique focal points. They can create glamorous big city moments or offer a sense of whimsy. Since you can’t see where a spiral staircase leads, they provide a dramatic sense of surprise in their approach to a new level—creating an effect of childish exploration. 

Pexels Amelia Hallsworth
Since you can’t see where a spiral staircase leads, they provide a dramatic sense of surprise.
Photo: Amelia Hallsworth

The Cons of Spiral Staircases

Difficult to Navigate 

While properly designed spiral staircases are safe, they can still be difficult for some to navigate. Unlike traditional straight stairs, spiral staircases lack a leisurely pitch and can feel more like a ladder. The confines of the design can also make the journey up the stairs feel tight and make it difficult to carry large objects up and down. 

May Feature Open Risers

Even though spiral staircases are safe for adults, designs with open risers present a safety concern for children and toddlers who can fall through if not supervised. Spiral staircases are an excellent idea for an urban bachelor or a young couple but may not offer enough practicality for a growing family in the suburbs. 

Challenging to Build

Your interior designer and architect team may love your new spiral staircase, but chances are your builder will hate it. Spiral staircases can be challenging to design, build, and install. However, the difficulty in engineering makes them all the more interesting to admire.  

Spiral staircases can be difficult to build.

The Spiral Staircase’s Roles in Film 

So, we know the pros and cons of spiral staircases. Still, these objectivities don’t account for many people’s intense emotional responses and feelings about this controversial design feature. Often, our tastes are informed by memories and experiences, and some of the most memorable homes we ever see are in films. Maybe we all have mixed feelings about the spiral staircase because of the many different roles it has played through the years?  

As the Murderer

The 1946 film The Spiral Staircase is considered one of the first slasher films in history, telling the story of a serial killer targeting a defenseless woman inside her home—which happens to feature a large spiral staircase. The staircase becomes a character in itself, aiding in the sinister plot of a murderer. So it’s possible to see why viewers of this film may have pause when adding a spiral staircase to their own home. 

Haunting Staircase the Spiral Staircase
Haunting Staircase in The Spiral Staircase

As the Saint

However, spiral staircases aren’t all sinners—some are saints. The Staircase is a movie that tells the true story of the Loretto Chapel spiral staircase in Santa Fe, which seems to be structurally supported only by the grace of God. The staircase features two complete 360 degree turns with no center pole for support, which means the entire weight of the staircase rests solely on the bottom step. The story goes that the sisters prayed for a solution to access the second level of the church, and the next day a man offered to build the staircase for free—creating a divine design. 

Loretto Chapel Staircase
Loretto Chapel Staircase

As the Repressor 

In Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, staircases take on competing roles of repression and expression. In an early scene, Hepburn ascends a spiral staircase and physically looks trapped both inside herself and behind the railings. After a movie makeover, she descents an open straight staircase, looking free and enjoying her new life outside the shadows. In this film, the spiral staircase plays a repressive role in holding back beauty and grace. 

As the Wingman

However, that doesn’t mean all spiral staircases are prudes! In Sunday in New York, the spiral staircase serves as wingman to Eileen Tyler (Jane Fonda) and her brother Adam Tyler (Cliff Robertson) as they both look for sexy hookups on a Sunday afternoon in New York City. As the quintessential 1960s bachelor pad, the staircase serves as a sexy and fun design feature that many bachelors today would love to have in their homes.

Spiral Staircase Sunday in New York
Spiral Staircase in Sunday in New York

The Consensus on Spiral Staircases

As you can see, spiral staircases encapsulate beauty, mystery, purity, and sexy fun all at once. While spiral staircases come with a few twists and turns, our San Antonio design team agrees that they are fantastic features—a step above the rest!  

Need help designing your home?    

Let Us Know!

Don’t miss out on design history, trends, and knowledge. 

Stay Up to Date with Us

Listen to Our Interior Design and Architecture Podcast  

Listen to Design Oracles

Recommended Posts
Addams Family HouseJib Door by Henry Vandervijver