He is settled on a comfortable couch in a SoDo storefront office that’s cluttered with scale models of magnificent winding stairways and tchotchkes of exotic woods, finely finished. But for the coffee table books in French lying around, this might be Geppetto’s man cave.
He is Shawn Christman, 57, who founded and presides over Seattle Stair & Design, which is thriving in a marketplace being commodified with off-the-rack stair kits manufactured by automated offshore factories.
His list of clients is impressive—and those are just the ones he can talk about. Seattle Stair’s recent jobs include 2,000 feet of curved wooden handrail and 1,000 feet of curved paneling for the massive stairs at Seattle’s new headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It built the steel-and-glass stair structure for the Barneys New York store in Seattle and the Y-shaped staircase at the Bellevue Hyatt. It manufactured an array of 50 Victorian, hand-turned Western red cedar columns and other architectural parts for the Grand Floridian Resort at Walt Disney World. And while Christman is mum about it (wrapped as it is in non-disclosure agreements), the company is working on Oprah Winfrey’s O.W. Ranch, a luxury vacation-rental destination in Kula, Maui.
In addition to these large projects, Seattle Stair has built hundreds of residential stairways in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Japan, Alaska and Hawaii, particularly on Maui.
Christman calls his designs “a balanced mix of geometry, architecture and sculpture.” His website (seattlestair.com) declares: “We understand the sensuous geometry of a compound curve. We know how to create the perfect helical twist in wood or steel.”
Besides aesthetics and mathematics, Christman’s team must deal with the legal constraints and considerations put on the building of structures that lift people and great weights high into the air. It’s that epic, relentless battle with gravity.
Christman started doing millwork for other people while in college. It was the late 1970s, the age of Aquarius was just wrapping up and the young Christman had stair parts dancing in his head. He was frustrated, as young men can be, with the old stair building order.
That order is still in place today. Stairways are typically an afterthought, out of plumb and often fashioned from scrap lumber—rough structures thrown together by contractors for their own use during construction. At the end of the job, they send a finish carpenter to lipstick the pig, making it acceptable to look at and safe enough for permanent use.
“It was a mess,” says Christman of the prevailing tradition. He struck out on his own, waging that contractors might happily defer stair building to his fledgling company, “and that I could make a living just building stairs.”
They were and he could. It was during the first wave of high-end construction in Seattle in the early 1980s, and not only was Christman weary of covering over others’ mistakes, he also saw a new market of buyers who wanted better design and could pay the freight for something more than the minimalist stairways of the era. Christman needed to learn new and better ways to build stairs. He faced, in essence, the old construction problem of filling a hole, or in this case, a stairwell. In the controlled environment of his studio, Christman began perfecting methods of designing and building an array of stair constructs that could be brought to the site to fit precisely into the hole.
Once central in the vestibules of grand homes or entryways into elegant public spaces, staircases were hidden by midcentury American architects or downgraded into utilitarian holes with steps, or, even worse, elevator shafts. Christman transformed stairs from afterthoughts into one-of-a-kinds, commanding prices from $20,000 to seven figures.
Research led Christman to Harry Waldemar, an old-time Boston stair maker whose work was in the Smithsonian Institution. Waldemar’s widow let Christman into her husband’s basement shop to shuffle through the craftsman’s old designs and forgotten methodologies.
Christman’s search also led him abroad. An unabashed Francophile, the Seattle native had earned a degree in French studies from Seattle University. The French literally wrote the book on staircraft and have created what Christman says are the most beautiful stairways ever built. What’s more, they still train builders in the old methods.
In 2001, he established a relationship in Paris with the reclusive, centuries-old Les Compagnons du Devoir (The Brotherhood of Duty), an elite guild of master builders whose artisanal forebears built such architectural masterpieces as Mont Saint-Michel and the Louvre.
The nature of fine stairways, with their winding banisters, intricate balusters and high-design newel posts, demands a wide mix of materials beyond an exotic forest of rare woods. This includes polished nickel, wrought iron, stainless and “mild” (or unhardened) steel, stainless cable, aluminum and glass, synthetics such as acrylics, and new green materials like the so-called eco resins.
A stairway from Seattle Stair is built in the company’s 10,000-square-foot SoDo shop, shipped and reassembled at the building site. Usually, the stairway is freestanding and structurally independent, like a piece of custom furniture. “It’s turnkey service,” says Christman, “with design, engineering, mixed media, construction, assembly and installation.”
Eleven high-value employees collectively have the skills of blacksmiths, stonemasons, cabinet makers, furniture makers, joiners, welders and laminators to work with woods, metals and synthetics. They are precision fabricators as well as millwrights proficient with lathes, rasps and planes, and the nearly equal task of keeping these tools sharp. Designer/drafters create shop drawings and 3D computer renderings for clients.
Christman says traveling in France, particularly his relationship with Les Compagnons, “refined his design ability.” It also afforded him the distinction of being the only American stairmaker certified to accept the guild’s apprentices for a year as they earn credit in their 7- to 8-year master programs. Eight individuals have done so during the past decade.
Although he might not use the term, Christman suggests that the company has proven to be recession proof. The economic downturn, he says, is “the greatest thing that ever happened to us.” Some of the company’s success lies in the failure of competitors, most of whom, Christman explains, couldn’t carry debt loads when the volume dried up. “They overextended. We did not.” Seattle Stair also got some large commercial jobs, which helped carry it through.
The company has expanded and added staff the past four years, but not solely for eye-popping, seven-figure public works or grand staircases for the carriage trade. In a nod to the economy, Seattle Stair developed a line of railings and banisters, and semi-custom stair kits in the $3,000 to $4,000 price range for downmarket buyers. It also offers a stair lab to help do-it-yourselfers with installations, and will even make a tap handle for your beer keg or repair your rocking chair.
What would expansion look like at Seattle Stair? More of the same, says Christman. He hopes to expand his space, add personnel and double his volume in the next 10 years, extending his reach to destination areas outside Washington state.