My Mom’s Design Dilemma

Yesterday, I received this e-mail from my mom:

Dear Ms Decorator,

I have a stair well that looks like a tunnel.  Yesterday I bought 8-8×10 black frames with 5×7 matts in them.  That won’t be nearly enough, but I wondered if I should mix other sizes with them.  Or should I mix something else with the framed pics?  What should I put in the frames–black & white or color?  Family pics?  Scenes?  Still life?  Flowers?

Thank you for any ideas you may provide.

Your most loyal and devoted fan,
Your Mom


The stairway in my mom’s house is definitely a “problem area”.  Instead of being open and airy, it’s dark and tunnel-like.  (There’s a reason why it’s like this, and it’s a pretty funny story.  I’ll definitely have to share it with you sometime.) And it’s one of the first things a visitor sees when he or she walks in the front door.


My mom’s house is very traditional in style.  Just recently, I’ve shown you her family room…


And I’ve shown you her bathroom…


So as I was looking at pictures of stairways yesterday, trying to get an idea for her, none of them were really inspiring me. First, they all seem so busy. Second, I’m starting to feel like the family photo gallery wall up the stairs, like this one from Apartment Therapy, has become a “go to” decorating decision for decorating walls going up stairways.


I’m not saying it’s terrible, or outdated, but isn’t there anything else that can be done? Besides that, my mom has a family photo wall in her family room, so putting more up the stairs would be too much, in my opinion.

One comment I read yesterday about the ubiquitous “family photo gallery up the stairway” made a good point. The commenter said that stairways are utilitarian. Not that they should look utilitarian, or that they shouldn’t be decorated, but people generally aren’t going to stop on a stairway and look at lots of pictures.

I agree with that. So I started thinking…my mom needs an arrangement that will be simple and not busy. It needs to be pretty without being too detailed. It needs to be something other than family photos. And it needs to be traditional in style.

So as far as arrangement, this is what I suggested for her (the line represents the hand rail)…


Precise, organized and uncluttered. But I’m stuck on what to actually put in the frames. I would love to do something similar to what I did in John & Alice’s family room


I think something like this would be perfect. Because it’s more graphic in nature, it doesn’t require a person to stop and study any detail in order to appreciate it. That’s the perfect concept for stairway wall decor. But shells are all wrong for my mom’s house. Plus, I’ve already done that, and I don’t want to recycle design ideas.

So this is where I’m stumped. I’ve been trying to come up with a solution since yesterday morning, and so far, I got nothin’! Nada. Zilch.

If you have a brilliant idea, please share it! Just remember…simple, traditional, no family photos, nothing with great detail, and it’s visible from the front door. Perhaps I should consult with Pinterest. If the answer lies anywhere, it would most likely be there

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    1. I Scrapbook and have been trying to decide what to do on my( tunnel) Stairs, Scrapbook paper comes in beautiful colors and designs. I think that is what I’m planning on doing.
      Good Luck!!

  1. I’m helping my sister decorate her new place. There is a stairway that is very visible from the living room. I was thinking that my sister should put photos of her favorite places she has visited such as her recent trip to France and her trip to Guatemala and Canada and New York or whatever travel spots hold an important place in her heart.here. I agree that family photos can become overwhelming if there are too many, but favorite travels photos have meaning. Putting all the photos in black frames unifies. Or all the photos can be in color but with different wood tone or white frames or all the same color mats. Can’t wait to see what your mom does with her stairway.

  2. I’m feeling the same way about the gallery wall of photos up the stairs. I also have a dark tunnel stairwell, so I feel for your Mom and for your challenge here. There’s a nice arrangement I found at loftandcottage.blogspot.com and pinned…if you are interested. It shows a nice arrangement of art. It is the only image on the board here:

    Good luck and happy decorating Kristi!

  3. Two of the things that I’ve seen (but not overseen) that I really liked were framed scrapbook papers (from the same line – nice graphical interest, but not too busy) and covering the cardboard backer with plain fabric and taking interesting ribbons and using them for the artwork (making stripes across the fabric backer).

  4. Here’s just an idea. Does your Mom have something she likes to collect? Then she could do a display of that, similar to your sea shell idea. She could even do some of them as a simple shadow box!

    My sister is here with me and she says: “She has a beautiful house!” 🙂 We can’t wait to see what the end result is!

  5. This is random and I’m not sure how many kids or grandkids she might have, but I work for a home builder and one of the homes we built the mom did something I thought was pretty unique. Kind of the same thing with picture layout, but she asked all her kids and grandkids to submit photos they’ve taken and then she chose several to display on her wall and each year she asks for new photos and changes them out. Sometimes she changes them out every 6 months. She said everyone loves the excitement to see if their picture will be chosen. Thought is was a really neat idea!

  6. Oh I struggled with the stair thing. I really wanted something other than photos, but just didn’t see it. I did go with photos, but that is the only place I have them. I do agree that it is a go to item and it is maybe an awkward place for them. I really look forward to seeing what you end up doing.

  7. A couple of ideas popped into my head…

    Maybe prints of very traditional architectural details? It would be very cool if you could find a book from a thrift store and frame the illustrations…

    A gorgeous fabric would be fun to frame. Something with a nice print, I think…or mix it with a coordinating solid. Your mom could also change this out seasonally if she wanted to.

  8. I’m glad you’re not going with the family photos on the wall. In my opinion, family pictures belong in photo albums, not on the walls in a home (having said that, I have 2 family pictures on my walls – one of my daughter and myself when she was aged 6 months – she passed away when she was four; and the other is of my son aged two, and his four grandparents – two of whom live in Australia, and one of the others passed away last year).

    We have a “tunnel-like” stairway leading to our upstairs area, but it’s not a concern to us it being dark, because it leads to our home theater, which is a room without windows anyway. We have a large framed Ansel Adams poster at the top of the stairs, but that’s it. I’m not interested in adding anything else to the walls.

    I hope you are able to come up with something that your mom likes!

  9. I am currently working on my stairwell and I am also over the family photos idea. I live in an 1891 Victorian farm house in a quaint New England town. I have been taking photos of arcitechual details around town and printing them in sepia tones to display up my stairway in various sizes but frames in the same tone with off white mats.

  10. Why not frame some plaster intaglios? I wrote a longer comment on fb but those look a lot like the shells you framed but they are more traditional. I did a set for my powder room and they are gorgeous.

  11. I don’t think this qualifies as brilliant but I have a similar wall where I’ve displayed photos from my travels. People do actually stop and look at them from time to time and I know I like to see them there. I like the idea of mirrors though too. Could brighten the space up~

  12. I noticed that strange box on the wall (secret passageway maybe?) and I think it could throw off the nice symmetry of the stair step arrangement you wanted. It might camouflage it to start with the first frame right above the box, and then stair step from there (so the first frame would be solo but higher up, and the last would be solo but closer to the rail). Also, I like the doily idea – if your mom’s into doilies. I wouldn’t use painted ones though, maybe just coffee/tea stained ones – makes them a nice beige-y colour that you can vary. For some colour you could put them on a coloured backdrop.

  13. Being very traditional & probably your mom’s age I would probably do plates if room allows or black on white silloheuttes of people, horse weather vanes, windsor chairs, simple scenes like that. Maybe Some mounted vintage keys mixed in

  14. So what about silhouettes? It’s not really photos, but it’s still personalized. I also really love the map idea, especially the typographic ones you can find on Etsy. So beautiful.

  15. I really like the ideas that reflect architectural elements – keys, fleur de lis, etc. Even an old zinc letter in the right size, etc.

  16. My first thought:
    What if you did a painting treatment instead of putting stuff there?

    After reading all the other comments:
    What they said. lol

  17. Getting away from a whole bunch of little framed something or other, what about panel moulding in segments going up the wall along the stairs. Inside each panel above the rail, put a beautiful hand painted wallpaper that would suit her style? Large, bold and graphic, repetative without being over taken, yet something beautiful to look at – and very traditional.

  18. How about printables? She could pick a background she likes And then choose some words that mean allot to her. For example love courage family etc. if the words got too busy you could intersperce them with plain background ones. I’d be happy to design something if you like this idea.

  19. After reading your post I wondered if a series of words might work. Words that have meaning to your mom and family. They could be stunning( I gravitate towards black with white lettering) black background, white lettering. The font could be in keeping with the look of the home which will make it fit in. So the words could be like the over used FAITH type of words or possible words that might mean more like places where she was born, names of children etc. It could be interesting. BTW Mom’s house is gorgeous!

  20. I had another idea – how about silhouettes of her children and grandchildren? Simple graphical element and they don’t have to be black – they could be in a more subdued color if that would be more color appropriate.

  21. Pressed fern leaves or flowers. Botanical prints. Photos from landmarks around town. Photos of letters making the family name. Swatches of fabric…

  22. This is not my idea, saw it elsewhere on the web – but I’ve always wanted to do a wall of round clocks up my staircase. Only one would actually keep time, the rest would be set to reflect times that have meaning to me – wedding, birth of my daughters, etc.

  23. Kristi, i like symmetry, symmetry, symmetry around the stairs no matter what color or content is there. There’s so much going on around a stair case the balance of symmetry (especially in whites ) gives the eye a rest. Vicki

  24. i know this is an older post, so you’ve probably already done something fabulous 🙂 but just a suggestion here… what about ceiling medallions? they’re big & add lots of texture. you could do all white to lighten up the hallway, or different colors/metallic finishes… with or without mirrors added to the centers on either option. could be lovely!

  25. Hi! I’ve been following your blog for years and love all of the inspiration you’ve been! We bought a ranch fixer upper two years ago and you’ve given me the confidence to tackle a full kitchen and bath reno along with vaulting ceilings and opening up doorways! (I grew up with a dad for a builder, so I love this stuff 🙂 I’m also a digital user experience designer and love graphic design. (Oh and I also love gardening and my backyard chickens!)

    My question for you is what does it actually look like to be a professional blogger….IE: how many followers do you need, what levels of sponsorship do you need to have (and how do you negotiate those) etc etc. I’m very entrepreneurial and ambitious and would love to work from home on what I love…..DIY and creating 🙂

    Would you be able to email me at [email protected] and share with me your guidance and experience?

    Thank you so much!