Good art, accents create stairway to heaven

Don't you just love TV makeover shows where they completely transform a plain Jane into a beauty queen? The pros see her potential and bring it out using a few tricks of the trade. Now you can do the same thing in what, for many, is the most plain-Jane spot in the house: the front stairway.

Even though this special space has the potential to dazzle everyone who walks through your door, most people aren't sure how to dress it up so it shines. So here are a few insider tips you can use to turn your stairway into a stunning focal point.

Create a grand gallery

When people want to decorate their front stairways, often their first inclination is to find furniture that will give the space personality. I agree that the right furniture is essential, but it shouldn't be your first step. Instead, you should fill those miles of bare walls with the kind of color, texture and intrigue you can get only through a gallery of killer artwork.

Great galleries don't happen overnight. They must evolve over time, piece by piece. When I decided to liven up my entry with a mosaic of art, I started with one painting, then, through the years, slowly added pieces, some large and impressive, others small and unassuming.

When you're beginning your stairwell gallery, hang a painting or a cluster of artwork in the center of the space, then let the montage spread outward through the years. Or start with two separate paintings or clusters, one at the top of the stairs and one at the bottom; then, over time, let them meet in the middle.

Make sure the look of your gallery reflects your personality and style. You could go for a wild mix of pieces in dissimilar styles, shapes and sizes, like I have in my home. Or you might prefer a grid of thematic artwork in matching frames. You might even opt for one large piece that's impressive enough to stand alone.

The jewel of the newel

One of my favorite ways to spice up my front stairwell is to create dramatic displays on the banister newel post. My banister curves at the end, creating a nice level spot about the size of a dinner plate where I can rest a tray or platter to use as a base for my creations.

When we hosted our daughter Kelly's wedding in our foyer, I put my favorite silver tray atop the newel post, then topped it with a bouquet of flowers and an ornate silver candelabra.

Through the years, I've decorated my newel post with an array of doodads, like a hurricane filled with fallen branches, a lantern surrounded by seasonal flowers or an urn loaded with gourds.

If you don't have a flat newel post, you can achieve the same effect by placing a tall, thin table or plant stand at the end of your banister. Then, make sure whatever you display there matches the scale of the room. If the area is tall and grand, the newel-post display must be, too.

Beautiful banisters, super stairs

If you're hosting a special event, you also can dress up your banisters. For Kelly's wedding, we cascaded fresh boxwood garland from the banisters. And during the holidays, I loop the banisters with faux pine garland. Since decorating banisters takes a lot of work and expense, I do it only for special occasions or during the holidays, when the display can stay put for weeks.

Finally, if you want to add more spark to your stairs, place a lantern every few steps, or dot each step with a cluster of battery-operated votive candles. In the fall, I sometimes march white pumpkins up the steps to give my formal home a bit of whimsy.

Mary Carol Garrity owns three home furnishings stores in Atchison, Kan., and wrote several books on home decorating. Write to Mary Carol at Her column is syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service.