Stairwell: Before and After

As extreme home makeovers go, stairwells are not exactly the most exciting space in the house. They're no kitchen, obviously, and they're not really even as exciting as a bedroom (which reminds me, I need to do a little update post on that bedroom; we've added a few new things since. Don't tip too far forward while you teeter on the edge of your seat in excitement!)

But after a little over a year of living in this house, we have finally conquered our stairwell—that is to say: painted it and hung some stuff on the walls—and I feel like celebrating that. This stairwell has been a royal pain in my hindquarters since the moment we moved in: it is a huge expanse of space—or it feels like it to us city-dwellers, anyway—and you see it as soon as you walk in the front door. There is a skylight, which makes it lovely and airy, but the ceilings seem to go up very high, which makes painting and hanging things a daunting challenge.

Above all, though, it is just supremely, supremely boring. I think you need a visual of the before: 

In the picture on the left, imagine that you are standing at the top of the landing on the main floor of our house. In the picture on the right, imagine that you have just walked into our house (Hello! Can I take your coat? White wine or red? Flowers? For me? You shouldn't have! They're beautiful! etc...)  and are about to climb the stairs to the aforementioned main floor. (There is also a small hallway down here, with a coat closet and a little table and so on, but that requires its own makeover, mainly to get rid of the orange hexagonal tile you will see a little more of later. For now, let's just focus on the stairwell.) 

See? It's pretty boring and barren, right? That needed to change. 

So first, we painted the entire thing "greige"—the downstairs hallway, the upstairs hallway, and the stairwell in between. That took approximately seven quazillion hours, and as soon as I put the first coat of paint on, I knew it wasn't the right color. I lived with it for two weeks—honestly, repainting the whole thing made me want to close my eyes and launch myself down those stairs headfirst—and then after a little while my perfectionism got the better of me and I knew I was going to have to change it. It was driving me nuts. It was way too light. People would come over and I'd say "hey, we painted the hallway" and they'd screw up their faces and peer at the walls and pretend like they noticed a difference and be all "Oh! Yes! You.....did!" even though I knew they totally hadn't because it was maybe a half shade darker than the color it had been before, and the color it had been before was WHITE.

So I decided to repaint. I figured I'd just grit my teeth and get on with it, rather than complaining that it was the wrong color for the next five years, so I bought a slightly darker greige, we signed an agreement saying neither of us would divorce the other before the whole thing was through—actually, we didn't, but WE SHOULD HAVE; painting together does not bring out the best in us—and Sean (re-)built this clever little platform he came up with so we'd have a place to balance the ladder and reach the really high bits. He built it out of plywood and propped it up with a crapload of web design books. Yes, I am totally sure this is how they do it on HGTV. 

Here, look at my husband balancing on stuff, about to topple to his death: 

Are you wondering what's going on in the picture on the right? That is Sean on the aforementioned plywood-and-web-design-book platform, hanging some canvases we had made. They're blown-up pictures he took of fireworks over San Francisco a few years ago, and I had a groupon for this canvas place online, which made them basically negative six thousand dollars. Or something. I forget, but it was a good deal. 

Anyway, you don't care about that. You just want me to get to the good part. So here we go. Here's the after:

I call this the Great Big Wall o'Nostalgia. We have basically framed everything that has ever, at some point, been important to us, including our wedding invitation, our save-the-date, our engagement party invite, the page from our wedding program containing our marriage vows, the page from September 5, 2009 in my day planner (to this day, the hasty, last-minute to-do lists make me shudder), the original sheet music my brother and dad used to play our first dance song, concert tickets, our correspondence from the Obamas, the original one-off Brian Andreas drawing Amber gave us as a wedding present, a map of Italy (we got engaged in Rome), and a few meaningful old family photos.  

There's some other stuff too—prints we already had that we liked, some old silhouettes that I bought a few years ago at the flea market, my hand-written version of Desiderata in white ink on black paper, a few requisite wedding pictures, and even an old page from a calendar—but the one unifying factor is that everything on that wall has some very particular and special meaning to us. 

Yes, of course we can go even closer: 

The whole point, of course, is that it's a work in progress. There aren't enough frames on the wall to reach the top yet—despite the fact that I cannot possibly believe there are still any white frames left in the Emeryville IKEA, seeing as I BOUGHT THEM ALL over the last two months—and my hope is that the space will function as a sort of ever-changing gallery where we switch out and add things at will. But I have to say, I'm really loving how it's looking so far; every time I go up or down the stairs, I find myself stopping and looking again at something. It's lovely to have that little reminder. 

It wasn't exactly a piece of cake, though—well, it wasn't for us—so I'll be back in a few days with a step-by-step tutorial for how to hang a gallery wall (particularly a gallery wall on a staircase) in case you're interested. Be warned, though, it involves a laser level, a lot of cursing, three broken picture frames, and the majority of a weekend. You will want to make sure you have some beer in the fridge when you do this, is what I'm saying. 

Aug 24, 2011

Fabulous! I love this!

Aug 24, 2011

Just looking at it makes me happy. (Even though it wasn't a piece of cake of course)

Aug 24, 2011

I echo what other-Janet said, fabulous! I adore.

Pretzel Thief
Aug 25, 2011


Love, love, LOOOOOOOVE.

I so wanna do something like this, fo' shizzle! (Well, when we buy a house, that is.)

Beautifully done, you guys!

yours truly, melissa
Aug 25, 2011

So if I understand this correctly, anyone coming into your home must first pass your lovely collection of framed memories? What a great way to greet houseguests!

Aug 25, 2011

i imgaine your guests will just plug up the stairwell when perusing the hotties on your wall ! Great idea, as usual.

Aug 25, 2011

I didn't think it was possible to love you guys any more but you've done it again.

Love this. :)

Aug 25, 2011

Wow, that looks awesome! Well done.

Dr. Maureen
Aug 25, 2011

That looks AMAZING.

Aug 25, 2011

That looks fabulous! My favorite part is the blown up photos of the fireworks.

Aug 25, 2011

Holly it's just beautiful. I can't imagine the amount of work that must have gone into hanging all those frames.

Aug 25, 2011

Love it! I totally wish I could siphon off some of your creativity. Maybe the bit in your non-dominant hand pinky finger. That should quadruple the amount I currently have.

(But, I have to admit it really bugs me that the two silhouettes aren't facing each other and I'm left wondering what he did to annoy her...)

Aug 25, 2011

Every time you guys post some home decor, I simultaneously fall in love with it and get depressed. Depressed because it reminds me that it is what my house looks like. Insert sad face.

How much to pay you and Sean to live in a house for ~2 weeks and do fabulous things to it? I promise to stock the fridge with beer. Any other demands?

Aug 25, 2011

I love (LOVE) photo walls. I am reticent to do one in my apartment because it is rented and that's a lot of work for a temporary living space. Also, I've been afraid to do it in a small space, like our hallway, because I thought it would be cluttered/crowded. Yours doesn't look cluttered, but does it make the space feel too small?

Great job. I love the items you chose. It looks wonderful and sounds so sentimental!

Aug 25, 2011

Love it! Like everyone said, such a great idea to great your guest with the history of you guys. And let me just say... I get what you said about the orange tiles... (shuddler) but the kitty makes it look way better!

Dawn K
Aug 25, 2011

Oh be still my heart-I Love Brian Andreas! So excited to see some in your gallery. Do you mind sharing which quip it is?

Kate (and Ben)
Aug 25, 2011

Love*Love*Love that wall--we had three small gallery wallls in our last long-term rental and I just cannot wait to cover our new house in frames!!

Aug 25, 2011

Holly, this is so lovely, what a great idea. It looks great and how nice that it all means something special to you. When I buy somewhere, I am going to hire you as my interior designer!

PS. What's the hand drawn one, second picture up from the bottom here?! Are they your cats?

Aug 25, 2011

Wow. It looks absolutely fantastic, and I am thoroughly impressed that the two of you are still on speaking terms after hanging that many things on the wall.

Aug 25, 2011

Brilliant! It's amazing what a little paint, a lot of determination, and some fabulous memories can do.


Oh, WOW. I love this. LOVE. We need to redo our stairwell, but step one is going to be removing dingy, old, disgusting carpet, so I'm procrastinating ever so slightly.


Anyway, amazing job!!!

Amy --- Just A Titch
Aug 25, 2011

I LOVE THIS. We have a small gallery wall and I want to increase the size. What a lovely idea for displaying such meaningful things. Gorgeous.

Aug 25, 2011

Wow, Holly. Beautiful! And bravo to you and Sean. I appreciate that you told us how not-cakelike this was, because I have a tendency to look at stuff like this and ask "why is it so easy for everyone else to do that?" Of course, it isn't!

Aug 25, 2011

Simply lovely.

Aug 25, 2011

Oh that is lovely. LOVELY! And now I'm all inspired to finally do something about our horrible stairwell. You know, after FOUR YEARS of living here. Gah.

(So lovely.)

Aug 25, 2011

Holly, this is fabulous! It makes me want a house & a gallery wall of my own!

Aug 25, 2011

rocking the stairwell! mucho love!

Aug 25, 2011

LOVE this!

Nolita @Morganic
Aug 25, 2011

Love the stairwell gallery. Very inspirational indeed. Now I'm off to frame my wedding invitation (only been married for 15 years now!)

Aug 25, 2011

It's so funny - your staircase looks just like ours! But ours isn't decorated yet, glorious job!!

Aug 25, 2011

It's very funny, your staircase looks just like ours - only ours hasn't been decorated yet... Great job! Love the look!

Nothing But Bonfires
Aug 25, 2011

Thanks so much for all the kind words, guys!

Blanche: I originally had the silhouettes facing each other, but I decided I liked them better back to back.

Maura: I don't find that it makes the space feel small -- the ceilings are very high and there's a skylight at the top so a lot of light still comes in. I mean, it's a stairwell, so it's never going to feel like an EMPORIUM or anything, but's a stairwell, so I don't really care.

Dawn K: The Brian Andreas drawing is called "Intuition" and it's this one: My friend Amber worked with him for a while and she asked him to draw something for us. He drew it from scratch and signed and dated it with our wedding date, then she framed it for us as a wedding present.

Starla: Speak of the devil, that hand-drawn one in the second picture from the bottom is the Brian Andreas drawing I mention above.

Aug 25, 2011

This looks amazing. I know staircases must be difficult to decorate, but they are usually my favorite space in a house. You did a great job!

Roxanna (miguelina)
Aug 25, 2011

Yes, please, on the tutorial. I'm dying to this in our foyer. I can't decide if I want to fram pictures or hang mirrors.

It's the ugliest room in the house, and you know what they say about first impressions!

Aug 25, 2011

You're already finished!? Oh my gosh, now I feel SUPER behind. I haven't even gathered up all my items yet, much less framed and hung them and taken photos to show off. I am still very much in the "Seriously Thinking About It" stage. (I ordered a couple of prints last night though, so there's SOME progress, just not a lot.)

I am so impressed. It looks fantastic!

Operation Pink Herring
Aug 25, 2011

I believe you when you say this wasn't easy, but DAMN it looks fantastic.

Aug 25, 2011

oh holly, i love this. i will be pining this for sure for my dream house board!

Aug 25, 2011

It looks amazing! Pinterest worthy even :-)

Nothing But Bonfires
Aug 25, 2011

LizP, I've already seen it a few times on Pinterest, which warms my cold little heart!

Aug 25, 2011

So, so pretty!

Aug 25, 2011

Adore this! I have the beginnings of a gallery on my own staircase, but it needs to be blown out considerably. I can't wait for your how-to; perhaps it will inspire me to finish what I began a year ago? :)

Aug 25, 2011

We are about to paint our stairwell, can you provide the name of the paint you used first and second time. Thanks.

Aug 25, 2011

Lovely! Do tell the greige color. I'm picking one for our dining room and intrigued to know what you used.

Aug 25, 2011

i am in awe of your stairwell. seriously. can you please come decorate my apartment?

Aug 25, 2011

I lived in a really run-down house during my last two years of college with a stairwell that is almost like what you describe. We never did anything to it obviously since well, we hated our landlord and the reason why we were there was because a) rent was cheap b) the living room fitted our billards table. Anyway, it looks amazing. Gorgeous. and so ... you and Sean. Congrats. This might actually be my fav part of your house (yes! it even beats the kitchen!)


Very nice! May I ask what color "greige" you used? I informed my boss, who flips houses, of this new(?) color trend I'm seeing around the blog world, and he's asked for some examples. :)

Carrie (in MN)
Aug 26, 2011

I thought oh! what a pretty patterned rug at the bottom of the stairs! Then...hey, I wonder where that orange tile is...ooooh, I see.

This looks great - I envy your great eye for design and your energy!

Nothing But Bonfires
Aug 26, 2011

Joanne, AndreaJennine, and Katie: The first greige we used was Valspar's Woodrow Wilson Putty. It was nice but really, really light, even with two coats. I'm afraid I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the greige we ended up using, but it was a few shades darker, and also a Valspar color. I'm in Austin right now, and thus don't have access to the paint can in my garage, but I'll have a look when I'm at home and update! Stay tuned!

Aug 26, 2011

LOVE IT!!!!! And I fully expect to see this on the Pinterest board entitled HANG IT ALL (but sadly, I don't recall who made it). Gorgeous.

Aug 26, 2011

well, I love this and I am totally stealing this idea for our own stairwell! I have a Tiffany box full of paper items from our wedding last year, and this is a MUCH better, and cuter, use of those things than having them sit all hidden in that box!

Aug 26, 2011


Aug 26, 2011

I sort of love everything about this. beautifully done.

Aug 27, 2011

You have such great taste. Wanna come help me hang our photo wall this weekend?

Claire Bidwell Smith
Aug 27, 2011

This looks amazing!! Such an inspiring idea. But daunting too. Is the actual framing of everything difficult?

Aug 27, 2011

Wow, I think you should quit the travel business and go into the home decor business.

Aug 28, 2011

I love seeing the befores and afters of your home! That gallery wall is amazing and I'm very much looking forward to the how-to!

Aug 29, 2011

I ADORE your stairwell!!! I've been trying to accomplish this same lovely, nostalgic look for our home but am failing so far; mine just looks like clutter. I am going to say it is because I do not have a stairwell. Yes, that's it, no stairwell. Fantastic job!

Aug 30, 2011

Beautiful stairwell! I love it! FYI (in case you didn't already know this), if/when you have a baby, send the Pres a baby announcement and you'll get a lovely congratulatory/"welcome to the world" note back, addressed to the baby! My husband did this last year without telling me, so you can imagine my surprise when I opened the mail one day and saw a return address from the White House!

Feb 23, 2012

Holly - I have a stairwell that leads up to my 3rd floor and am thinking of doing a gallery wall up there. Any tips or tutorial links that you can share on how to do this would be so appreciated. I am not crafty at all and need much assistance.

Mar 01, 2012

I really like the color you ended up painting the stairwell. You mentioned that it's a darker shade than the Woodrow Wilson Putty, do you remember what color it is? It's funny because I did a google search for Woodrow Wilson Putty since I was planning on using that color. I was worried it would be too light, so I'm glad I found your site. Thanks for sharing!

Nov 18, 2012

Wow, I just randomly came across your blog and I absolutelly love it here.
Your home look absolutelly incredible. You have done such a great job! That's really nice idea, hanging so many pictures on the staircase wall... gonna steal that one day.. :D
Sending greetings from Czech Republic! xx

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