Every Step She Takes

Master Designer Perla Lichi steps it up with an array of grand stairways

By John D. Adams

Master interior designer Perla Lichi and I are discussing how she leaves no space untouched; how her gifts for magical thinking extend to every corner of a house. We are under a stairway. Not, perhaps, since Busby Berkeley has anyone heaped such adoring attention upon the design and aesthetic beauty of interior design’s utilitarian necessity — “the Staircase.” Like that master film director/choreographer of groundbreaking classics “Footlight Parade,” “Gold Diggers of 1933,” and “Dames,” Lichi appreciates that stairways offer unexpected opportunities for artistic and dramatic effect.


Graceful wrought-iron railings enhance a grand staircase. Photo by Craig Denis

Step it up
Where some see the staircase as a strictly functional feature best left to the shadows, Perla sees a stairway to heavenly delights. “It’s just another way to infuse a grand home with the elemental personalities of the owners. It’s got to be in there, so I embrace the challenge! What do we absolutely see and use every day? Our stairs. I love transforming the staircase into a beautiful sculpture. It’s a central part of the house, so why not step it up and create a fascinating focal point?”


White lacquer stairway transformed into a sculptural centerpiece. Photo by Butchworx Photography

Step by step
For a home in Kenya, Perla took advantage of a “very straightforward, against-the-wall, stairway.” Perla opted to give the most attention to the balustrade, handrail and newels. She selected a breathtaking, hand carved mahogany, aged and gilded in silver leaf. “The color, texture, the detailing of the wood and iron…we made a statement with these because that large space could handle the ‘weight’, of a heavier design. To me, it almost becomes a tapestry,” Perla said.

At a Star Island hom, an awe-inspiring double staircase commands center stage. It is one of Perla’s favorites and boasts a unique hourglass design that our old filmmaker Berkeley would have appreciated. “I think this is a magnificent staircase. The shape is unique. We were fusing a variety of styles here. For the ceiling we chose to hand paint a Marrakech-inspired damask texture. But the scrollwork throughout the wrought iron is more Mediterranean.”
Most designers would likely have pulled back on the iron detail work since there would be so much of it. Not Perla. “We went for it!” she enthused. “The space is so grand we wanted to go all out. The volume is there and the house just called for it. Since it is centrally located between a piazza and the main sitting room, this staircase is very sculptural and had to become a major architectural art piece. To me, it had to be a jewel given proper attention to the details.”


Hand-carved, silver-leafed mahogany details blend into a tapestry of design. Photo by Craig Denis

Step aside
Many designers can step aside for Perla, who is all about exploiting every square inch of space. Which brings us back to under the staircase. It isn’t white, like most you see. The entire breadth and width under this white lacquered staircase is bejeweled in dramatic silver leaf. “It’s like adding a ring to your finger,” she explained. “Above is a silver dome and crystal chandelier, which looks like it is cascading down like rain… This is my funky house. Look closely at the railing. We designed that on an angle. Most of the time the design runs straight up and down. We angled the design to look almost as if you have taken a horizontal painting then angled it upward.”

No staircase design story would be complete until we speak a bit about “the stringer.” That is the piece that covers the sides of your risers and treads. And it is another area that is often left featureless. For one house in South Africa, Perla’s unprecedented use of heavy carving and silver leaf serves a purpose besides just being a showstopper. “That stairway is a spiral three stories high,” she remarked. “So you have 300 feet of space tunneling around connecting the three stories.” Each level branched off, creating a variety of ceiling heights creating a visually chaotic tableau.

Perla needed to pull attention away from the confusion of ceilings. “So we made the stringer the star of the show. It is custom-designed gypsum, made by hand, first by carving a wooden mold then pouring the gypsum. Finally, each piece is hand molded to the other, making sure there would be no breaks or seams. Then an artist came in and silver leafed and antiqued it.”

We walk out from underneath the staircase and head for the front door. Looking back, I pause to admire the staircase with a deeper appreciation of Perla’s imagination and energy. She truly makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Learn more about Perla Lichi online at www.perlalichi.com

Every Step She Takes