Engineering elegance: the staircase at Wisteria House
Words by Jake Russell
We speak to Michaelis Boyd architects and stonemason Ian Knapper about a unique house in Kensington
Glimpses of spaces beyond
Positioned on a picturesque street in West London, Wisteria House is a traditional townhouse moments away from Kensington Palace. This five-bedroom, five-story family home recently underwent a major renovation managed by global architects and designers Michaelis Boyd. The studio is renowned for introducing curves and softening materials in a number of their high-profile projects, including Soho Farmhouse and Battersea Power Station.
Olivia Birnbaum Shemie, a lead architect at Michaelis Boyd, alongside founding partner Alex Michaelis explained how the once tired and poorly functioning property required a renovation for the modern family. She explained how the staircase became the core feature and inspiration for the remainder of the project, which is now visible from the basement to the attic.
The staircase forms part of the habitable space within the house. Rather than just a means to get one from A to B, the staircase gives glimpses of spaces beyond, as well as cocooning you within its curved walls.
Olivia Birnbaum Shemie
Michaelis Boyd appointed respected stonemason and designer Ian Knapper to deliver their cantilever staircase design. The staircase rises effortlessly throughout the entire property without a central support. The studio worked with Ian to embed each tread into the walls, ensuring each step supports the next with elegance and strength.
The staircase is made entirely from Portuguese limestone, including the landing slabs which spread the material out into the neighbouring floors. This material, a variation of Moca Crème, was chosen specifically for its soft aesthetic.
"Stone staircases can give an incredibly elegant and slender profile,’ Ian explains. ‘The narrowness of the ‘throat’ – where the tread meets the riser line – can be really fine, which simply isn’t possible with metal, wood or concrete. The other advantage with solid stone steps is that you can see the material from every angle, which gives a beautiful sense of harmony".
An engineering challenge
Installing the staircase was a challenge. The relocation of the narrow staircase raised a number of engineering issues, as did installing the vast stone slabs over five storeys. There are also moments where the staircase passes a series of windows, meaning hidden metal supports had to be installed, so that the effortless flow of the steps could continue through the property, while allowing for moments to pause by each window.
The studio rotated the staircase 180 degrees to invite more natural light and space in the once light-deprived ground floor entrance hall. On this floor, the front door originally opened directly onto the street, but Olivia and her team introduced a recessed portico to move the entrance back within the building. The portico and the new orientation of the staircase gave a transitional space to the hallway, adding to the overall impression made on arrival.
Traditional and contemporary
Subtle design elements throughout the project echo the staircase’s use of natural materials and organic shapes. For instance, the walls are coated with a sustainable clay render, which brings added warmth to each room. The clay render also harmonises with the curved interiors and Portuguese limestone, to give a calming backdrop to the property’s blend of traditional and contemporary details.
Wisteria House is an excellent example how a single design feature can inspire a whole interior. Furthermore, the staircase at Wisteria House is a spectacular piece of engineering, offering this historic townhouse a new lease of life for generations to come.
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Words by Jake Russell