Volume 47, Issue 6 - July/August 2008

Roll Out the Red Carpet
First Annual Staircraft Awards Show the Best
By Drew Vass

To some, a stairway is just a means of getting from one level to the next. But to the members of the Stairway Manufacturers’ Association (SMA), a stairway is much more than just an assembly of stringers, treads, risers and such; it’s a work of art and craftsmanship.

“Stairways have long been a centerpiece for great architecture,” says SMA president Jim Trice. “A well designed stairway not only serves as a safe and comfortable means of passage, but as an architectural feat and a work of art. Many of our members’ works essentially serve as the artistic core, or heart, of a home.”

A stairway that draws our attention at first may eventually lie ignored under traveling feet. But the magnificence of a choice few never fades. This past May, the SMA decided to pay homage to its finest artists and their timeless projects with the first ever SMA Staircraft Awards Program.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the association. So why, after 20 years, did the SMA decide to introduce these new elements? SMA code representative Dave Cooper says it was requested by members.

“It’s been talked about for a number of years,” he explains. “People kept mentioning it in the membership survey.”

Entry categories included: balustrade, straight stairway and curved/spiral stairway. Ballots were cast anonymously and areas of critique included: aesthetics, safety, quality and technical challenge. In the end, three awards were presented for: Best Balustrade, Best Curved/Spiral Stairway and Best Straight Stairway.

You might be wondering how, exactly, members would manage to get their stairways to the annual meeting for review? Since that’s a little more than the average airline will allow in checked luggage, each was asked to complete a standardized submission form by e-mail, including one primary eight-by-ten photo, three smaller supporting images, and a maximum 25-word description.

The Numbers Are In
Part of the SMA’s motive was not only to meet its members’ requests, but also to boost involvement. As a side benefit, the contest also drew in new members.

“I joined primarily for the Staircraft Awards,” says Shawn Christman, president and owner of Seattle Stair & Design in Seattle.

Christman, who has been in business for 30 years, says the awards added precisely the element he was waiting for.

“I’ve watched the SMA for 20 years,” he says. “I know that it was started by the larger stock parts manufacturers and it was relevant, but tangentially relevant, to what we’ve been doing for all those years.”

That changed with the new awards program and educational conference.

“I felt we could compete on a national level with the projects that we’re doing and I felt that, if we could get that recognition, that would be a real pat on the back and a feather in the cap for everyone on my crew,” he explains. “I wanted them to get that recognition.”

Christman has a deep respect for the art of stairway design and building. While his company produces 200 invoices a year on average, twelve are elaborate, highly-custom projects—the sort of projects that take up to a year from conception to finished product.

“This is absolutely an art,” Christman says of his profession. “It’s art, architecture, craft and math—all four rolled into one. It took me a good ten years of experience to recognize that it was something much more than just working with my hands. I could then see there was an artistic side to it.”

Coming in Strong
Christman’s peers agreed—his company can compete on a national level. Seattle Stair & Design was awarded for two of its projects at this year’s ceremony—one in the Straight Stairway category, another in the Curved/Spiral.

For the Straight Stairway category, Christman submitted a project constructed in Hawaii for a high-end condominium.

“The owner is a successful businessman from the Northwest,” he explains. “He came to us not knowing exactly what he wanted. He had an idea of what he wanted in terms of geometry, but he didn’t have an idea of what he wanted in terms of design, effect, materials and such.”

Christman says part of producing a work of art involves becoming familiar with its eventual surroundings. This is where the creative thought process begins.

“The effect we were going for in [the straight stairway] project, with the glass, was a sort of echo, or reflection of what was going on right outside, with the waves breaking on rocks,” he says. “The waves have this blue hue to them and they sort of subside to a foamy top.”

This project’s home was on the Hawaiian coastline. Christman says his company combined glass with Koa wood, a Hawaiian native species, in order to mimic this effect.

“We sourced every board foot for that project ourselves, directly from Hawaii,” he explains.

Seattle Stair & Design’s second winning entry was in the Curved/Spiral category. This project also was located in Hawaii. Christman says his company likes to meet with a client and get to know them as part of the creative process, but this particular owner was located in New Zealand. 

“We didn’t actually meet him,” he says. “He just left us to our own devices, which is the liberty that every designer yearns for, but it leaves you with this foreboding sense of, ‘What if we execute something that this gentleman just doesn’t like?’ But in the end, he loved it.”

Christman says the entire process, from creative concept, initial drawings and CAD files, to a finished project, often takes as much as a year. One of the projects his company currently is constructing a stairway for has been in process for six years now. Building a stairway for this sort of project is a labor of love that requires immense patience.

“... It’s just beautiful,” he says, speaking of a New Orleans stairway. “It’s just this flowing, sinuous line of handrail and staircase floating down a circular shaft. It’s just sensuous.” Christman occasionally speaks to students and architects about the elements and art of stairway building and will often pose the question—“Where does beauty like this come from?”

Christman has joined the ranks of more than 130 SMA members who take the art and trade just as seriously, including Paul Saxby of Colonial Woodworking in Bradford, N.H., who won the “Best Balustrade” award. Saxby says his maple and glass wave stair and rail combination were also designed to mimic the exterior environment of the host home.

“As this is an oceanfront home, the blue and clear glass baluster, as well as the glass floor in the landing, were both a reflection of the exterior water and sky, and the use of the Bird’s eye maple in the newel mimicked the grains of sand along the shore,” Saxby says. “The newels also shared the ‘wave’ in that they were curved in each transition, again to mimic the waves.”

Like Christman, Saxby says his client gave his company a great deal of freedom.

“When we were brought into the project we had the opportunity to not only contribute our stair building expertise, but also the artistic freedom to develop the final new design and produce and install the final product pictured,” he says. “The design process in this case was a ten-week evolution that included the collaboration of the architect and homeowner.”

Saxby says being selected by his SMA peers was a tremendous feeling.

“We feel proud, validated and certainly humbled by the recognition and vote our peers showed by honoring us with this award,” he says. “The entire Colonial Woodworking team feels greatly humbled and elated by this honor.”

Saxby says his company plans to participate in next year’s event.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if next year we have double the number of entries, based on the feedback and number of people who have expressed interest,” Trice says.

Right about now, next year’s winners are likely sitting, perhaps overlooking the ocean, contemplating their next masterpiece.

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