With staircases finally receiving the attention as a vital design element and focal point, there is an accompanying interest in the dramatic possibilities of balustrades. The balustrade – the term encompasses the supporting balusters, also called spindles, the handrail, and any supports such as newel posts – plays a major role in rein forcing and accentuating the design of the staircase; it also serves important safety functions.

Today’s balustrades are crafted in an assortment of intriguing materials and textures, and in a wide range of innovative architectural designs. If you are looking to replace or update your balustrade, many exciting new design choices await.

Iron Balusters: Contemporary Chic

Iron balusters — in satin black, glossy white, or oil-rubbed copper or bronze – are currently trending,and offer an attractive alternative to conventional wooden spindles. The look is clean, precise and modern, yet carries overtones of history and tradition. In addition to the popular “twist” shape, iron balusters often feature ornamentations such as “knuckles” and baskets.However, these decorative details tend to be understated and subtle; experts note that designers and homeowners are opting for simple iron balusters over intricate scroll work.


There is also a trend away from attaching the balusters directly to the treads of the stairs. Many contemporary balusters, particularly those of iron, are affixed to the “stringer,” or outer wooden supporting system. This results in a less confining and more fluid look, as well as freeing up more tread surface.

The X Factor: Contrasting Geometric Forms

Reflecting the move away from “fancy” scrollwork, X’s and other spare, angular designs are currently popular baluster motifs. Another hot trend, mixing contrasting geometric shapes, is illustrated by the popularity of white wainscoting along stairways, ornamented by repeating squares and paired with simple cylindrical balusters.Square iron balusters, often topped by a cylindrical handrail, offer intriguing contrast,as well.

The trend towards squared-off, straight-edged forms can also be seen in the dominance of the box newel, which is replacing traditional round and lathe-turned newel posts. These squared, relatively slender columns usually feature flat or beveled tops rather than the conventional “ball” cap.

Reflect on Clean, Bright Chrome

Once confined to commercial and public spaces, balustrades of gleaming chrome or brushed steel are beginning to appear in residential homes. Although, at first glance,a balustrade made of such materials might seem cold or industrial, in actuality these sleek systems look airy, clean and charming, especially when paired with flawlessly stained and finished hardwood stairs. Instead of traditional balusters, these balustrades often feature horizontal stainless steel cables or slender metal rods, which allow more light to come through. The brightening effect of these sleek and shiny balustrades makes them particularly effective on dim staircases that don’t have the benefit of windows or skylights.

Less is More: The New Minimalism

Although today’s balustrades don’t lack for dynamic design and thoughtful details, they are in general more streamlined-looking than those of days past. There is a trend towards shorter systems; abbreviated balustrades now often terminate in slim, understated box newel posts on the second or third step from the bottom, rather than the first. In addition, many of the new architectural steel or chrome balustrade systems don’t feature newel posts at all.

Glass Balustrades: Clearly Modern


The ultimate minimalist balustrade, of course, is one that is transparent. Clear glass balustrades, constructed of panels mounted on sturdy metal supports, are steadily gaining ground as a design choice. Whether swooping and sinuous or straight-edged, these transparent guardrail systems provide a feeling of airiness and spaciousness.

Paintbrush Therapy for Balustrades

If you are operating on a tight budget and balustrade replacement isn’t in the cards right now, don’t despair. You can sand, prime and paint your balustrade into the year 2014. A coat of inky, high-gloss black paint can give wooden spindles the look of wrought iron, and turn an outdated, clunky newel post into a sleek, contemporary sentry. A new minimalist handrail in an attractive stain and glossy finish can help pull the crisp new look together.

Or, try one of the currently popular dark neutral shades. Mocha, espresso and charcoal gray can all go a long way towards updating a timeworn balustrade.

With architects creating striking designs such as cantilevered, “floating” and helical stairs, 2014 may well be the Year of the Stairway. Whether you possess one of those architectural feats, or a more conventional stairway, you will want to accent it in the most effective way possible with an eye-catching balustrade. The dramatic styles, interesting textures and unconventional materials of today’s balustrades can provide ready inspiration.

About the Author

Molly Hilton is the owner of Renaissance Painters in Toronto and has devoted more than 30 years to home renovation, painting, and custom home building. Her unique design concepts bring homes to life with colours and unique pieces that are artfully placed to draw attention to the most powerful and distinctive features of a home.