In the hallway of staircase manufacturer EeStairs hangs a dozen photos of famous customers. “Just look the other way,” says director Cornelis van Vlastuin with a laugh. It sounds like a joke, but he means it: that wall is “off the record”.
So much secrecy around a staircase? Van Vlastuin understands that its customers ask for confidentiality. The stairs of EeStairs cost an average of 75,000 euros, with peaks of the million. As a millionaire, you don’t necessarily have to put up with that.
“Ceo’s of large American companies, who really don’t want to say anything about their vacation homes on Long Island. Then they are accused of extravagant behavior.”
Well okay, a few names are possible, they don’t all keep an eye on the Dutch news: Jeff Koons for example, the artist. Or Sir Tom Dyson, the vacuum cleaner tycoon. Businesswoman Annemarie van Gaal – that was also an exceptional staircase, with American walnut, and she thinks it’s okay, Van Vlastuin knows that.
Thousands of stairs of EeStairs (about eighty employees, 22 million euros turnover) have been installed all over the world in recent years. It often involves curly combinations of glass, concrete, wood, metal and lights. Sometimes with a slide next to it. At wealthy private individuals, but also at corporate headquarters. Of white spiral staircases at AkzoNobel and NRC-parent company Mediahuis to sleek, glass constructions at Pon and G-Star. In flagship stores from large retail chains such as Victoria’s Secret and in museums such as the Victoria & Albert in London.
It is an impressive customer base for a company that has only been around for twenty years, but it could be much larger, according to the Laren private equity fund 5square. Two weeks ago, the two parties announced that 5square is taking a 65 percent stake in EeStairs. At what price has not been disclosed. EeStairs is currently mainly large in the London, New York and the Netherlands region, and much more needs to be added under the guidance of 5square.
It is the first outside interference for EeStairs. Van Vlastuin, from Renswoude in Utrecht, started the company in 1999, at the request of friend and fellow villager Dick Cluistra. He already worked in construction: could they not start producing luxury building components together?
In fact, Van Vlastuin had always envisioned his future in his father’s car company – the diplomas were already in his pocket. Nevertheless, he went to work with the building components. He soon decided to focus on stairs: that’s where the most opportunities lay, because the added value is great.
For seven years, Van Vlastuin tried to enter the world, while the professional wood and metal workers from EeStairs worked on ‘normal’ stairs. Getting to know the right clients and architects – EeStairs often works closely with the designer of a building – took a long time. “I couldn’t get to the real thing.”
Until suddenly that first job was done: a staircase for a movie star, worth 200,000 dollars.
Then the ball started rolling. He has now collaborated with great architects such as Zaha Hadid – well, her representative, he has never met her himself – and the commissions from (also representatives of) millionaires and billionaires come in naturally. Incidentally, he does not always know for whom he actually works, because that group is so fond of privacy. “One time, a customer wouldn’t even tell her address.” The installation team in the Moscow region had to set out with coordinates. The stairs were in front of a wardrobe.
EeStairs now has two factories: one in Canada, for the North American market, and one at a business park in Barneveld. Each discipline has its own space: in the first hall a handful of woodworkers are sanding down steps for a hospital this morning. One door further, the metalworkers weld a handrail into a spiral staircase construction.
Some staircase designs look more like an Escher etching than a serious construction drawing
In the factory they build what was designed one floor higher – accessible by a concrete spiral staircase – by eight engineers and Van Vlastuin. They tinker with 3D designs on huge computer screens, after which the construction drawings can go down. Some look more like an Escher etching than a serious design
The nice thing about making stairs, says Van Vlastuin, is that you have to pay attention to many different things: rules, walking comfort, safety and aesthetics. He becomes visibly enthusiastic when talking about taking up (the width of a step) and acting (the height). “If you combine those, a certain walking rhythm is created.”
You have to maintain that for the entire ascent, even if you build in an intermediate platform, as is required every seventeen steps in France, and every four meters in the Netherlands. And then also try to make something beautiful out of it. By letting the glass wave from the edge of the stairs, as at law firm De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek in Amsterdam – Van Vlastuin’s favorite staircase.
Or by experimenting with steps of different sizes – although that was not an unqualified success. A few years ago, EeStairs came up with a striking design for a staircase in the Historisch Centrum Overijssel in Zwolle: one in which the steps at the top and bottom were much longer than in the middle, so that the stairs seem to wave upwards. “You do have rules in the Netherlands for the minimums and maximums of performing and taking office, but it did not say anywhere that they all had to be the same.”
Some thought that was a slightly too free interpretation of the guidelines. This was not allowed, according to the trade association of Dutch Stairs Manufacturers (NTF): the Zwolle stairs would be unsafe. A small split in staircase land followed. EeStairs left the trade association.
Van Vlastuin shakes his head. “This was possible within the rules, and the running rhythm was perfect.” The guidelines of the Building Decree now state that it is not the intention to make stairs with different step sizes.
No more with the elevator
Tapping into more markets is one thing, but what Van Vlastuin actually hopes is that the staircase as a whole will become more ‘in’ in the coming years. Because people don’t like to get into an elevator because of corona, for example. Or because shops want to invest more and more in stairs to lure people to a higher floor: retail experts have been insisting for some time that shops with a ‘normal’ escalator are no longer sufficient.
As a designer, those kinds of stairs are actually perhaps the most fun; Van Vlastuin can continue to visit the shop stairs. Because he sometimes finds that a pity about working for the super rich: you build it, and you lose it forever. “When I’m in Amsterdam, I always think: we built there, and there. But I can never see it again.”