In Top Form

Creating a spectacular countertop design sometimes requires a counter-intuitive approach. Whether it’s mixing and matching the unexpected, taking a countertop material and using it in a different application or adding a unique edge treatment, the best countertop projects are often the ones that bring something different to the table.

Of course it’s important to meet clients’ aesthetic and functional demands, but sometimes the addition of something out of the ordinary is what really makes the design.

Kirsten McElwaine, owner of Kirsten’s Kitchens in West Chester, PA, explains: “The keys to a dynamic countertop application are color, texture, proportion and the ‘wow’ factor. The unexpected is always a winner.”

Bobby Leatherwood, who along with his two sons owns and designs for the Canyon Lake, TX-based Picassa Crete, notes that edge treatments are equally important in getting that “wow” effect. The kitchen and bath design firm owner and manufacturer of the Old World Stone Countertop System (made from manufactured limestone), states: “We look at colors in the immediate areas and then the design of the entire room. The hardest part is to design which edge fits the home, and what type of stone look to achieve.”

Of course, performance and ease-of-maintenance remain important considerations, and today’s consumers seem to gravitate toward products that are as functional and “health conscious” as they are beautiful.

Mix and Match

The mixing and matching of materials remains a hot trend for several reasons. First of all, this allows consumers to create an eclectic look, personalizing their spaces with both the material choices and the placement of those materials.

Mixing and matching materials also helps to use color, either sparingly or boldly, as well as create texture and balance. It can create different surfaces for different purposes. And, mixing and matching countertop materials allows consumers to benefit from being able to enjoy high-end materials, even if they are working on a tight budget.

“Today there is so much integration of different materials,” says Tom Trzcinski, CMKBD and principal of Trzcinski Design Group Kitchen & Bath Concepts in Pittsburgh, PA. “We’re seeing a lot of stone being combined with elevated glass – that type of thing is being done quite a bit,” he notes.

Sometimes, one surface will be used to add high drama, while the other surfaces play a supporting role. Other times, several lower-profile countertop choices are combined to create a clean and streamlined look. However, whether it’s one material or several, natural materials and hues remain a hot trend.

Trzcinski notes that, in some cases, this can create challenges. For instance, he frequently deals with clients’ desire to use wood surfaces because of their warm, natural feel, yet he needs to also consider the durability factor. “This is especially true around lavatories,” he says.

He recounts a recent master bath project where he addressed this issue. “It was a contemporary bath where we had almost an 8" or 9" band across the front of the cabinetry. We wanted to design it to look like it was a big block of wood, but we inset quartz into the top of it to give it a durable finish,” he says. “Aesthetically, the color tone of the quartz was the same as the wood, and we used vessel bowls to give it the durability and the look we wanted.”

Another project he worked on featured integrated glass built into the countertop. He states: “We glued the edge of the glass right into the surface of the stone. It was all at the same level, but you could see the difference naturally where the glass ended and the stone was situated. It was all melded together so all we had to do was just smooth it out.”

McElwaine also cites a recent kitchen project that mixed and matched natural materials. She took a 4"-thick edge grain Burmese teak countertop with built-in knife slots from Grothouse Lumber and overlapped it with granite to add functionality and convenience for the client during food preparation.

Interestingly, McElwaine says that a teak butcher block was initially not even on her client’s wish list, “but once I showed her a sample and told her about the characteristics of wood, she was sold.

“Wood also adds warmth to any kitchen. It helps to balance the stainless steel and polished surfaces that it is typically sharing space with,” she says.

“Ultimately, I think the thickness of the countertop makes it unique, and by overlapping the granite, it gives the piece a very finished look,” she continues. “It also lowers the butcher block a bit, making it easier to chop on.”

Healthy Choices

While aesthetics are usually the first consideration when clients look at countertop materials, a growing trend has seen a greater focus on products that are viewed as healthy choices, as well as options that are eco-friendly and durable.

“Safety issues such as anti-bacterial qualities and stain-resistance are often topics of discussion. I want my clients to know they can really use their kitchens without having to worry about harming [the countertop],” McElwaine says.

Leatherwood agrees: “People are also more educated in matters of health and disinfectants. There is a growing awareness of what materials might be viewed as being potentially dangerous. That is why we only use sealers that are chemical resistant and stain resistant.”

The trend toward healthier materials also ties into the growing interest in environmentally friendly countertop choices.

As Elizabeth Spengler, ASID and president/CEO of Dorado Designs in Oro Valley, AZ, notes: “There are countertops made from recycled paper held together with eco-friendly resins that are used in laboratories and are a healthy option for residential use.”

Holly Marie Peterson, AKBD, CAPS of Lifestyle Kitchen Studio in East Grand Rapids, MI, points out: “No longer does ‘green’ need to scream ‘sterile construction materials’ or rustic earthy materials. Instead, it can fit seamlessly into any design theme.”

Ultimately, though, it is how well the countertop matches what the client envisions that determines a project’s success.

As Spengler explains: “Countertops can take an ordinary kitchen to an extraordinary place by simply thinking outside the box!”

Island Appeal

With so many striking countertop options, islands remain a great way to showcase these materials. McElwaine sees two-tiered islands still in demand, although she believes that standard, single-height island countertops are capable of providing adequate seating for those who have less space to work with.

But Barbara K. Wade, kitchen designer for Custom Kitchens by Design in La Plata, MD, says: “I think kitchens are much larger than they used to be, so incorporating larger, multi-leveled islands is becoming the standard.”

Peterson agrees that islands have become a key focal point, making them ideal for showing off unique countertop materials.

“It’s an opportunity to customize the kitchen to the client’s lifestyle, on any budget, too,” she says. “Designing different heights, materials and spaces can change an island from a simple work surface and storage area to a multi-tasking center for entertainment, display and functional spaces.”

“Lately, we’ve also noticed a trend in countertops becoming larger in size than the old traditional countertop using a small bar above the main countertop,” Leatherwood adds. “In some cases, we’ve actually removed the bar from several remodel jobs and extended the countertop out to create a larger, more usable surface.”

Edgy Design

When Bobby Leatherwood was asked to transform a “plain and dull” kitchen into one with a dynamic, Old World style, he decided to get a bit edgy.

Leatherwood explains: “We’d recently completed a custom island. My sons and I came up with the idea of building a long narrow island with an Old World stone countertop. So we designed a base cabinet with an open front facing the kitchen sink. We thought since we had built a long and narrow island cabinet, we should design a different top other than a long narrow square. We came up with a design with round corners with one side that overhangs 12" and doubles as a bar top.”

He notes that he and his sons decided to create a curve on the bar side, with the other side kept straight. To add a unique look, he says: “We chose a natural stone edge we designed ourselves. Now the kitchen ties into the living room with the same wood flooring, and it meshes well with the entire scheme.”

Light and Bright

Of course a countertop design is only as beautiful as the way it is displayed. So when Wade’s client asked her to spotlight the countertop material in a recent kitchen project, she took the request quite literally.

She explains: “One of the main challenges was that the client wanted to display the material of the countertop in other places besides the countertop in order to backlight the product.”

The client had selected Brown Agate Concetto by CaesarStone, which was coordinated with the Chamois from Corian’s Private Collection. Wade notes: “Some of the semi-precious stones in the Concetto Collection are breathtakingly translucent, so we wanted to accent that characteristic. We solved this challenge by using the material as a backsplash rather than a countertop and backlit the stone.”

This approach, combined with the light golden beige and lighter sand veins featured in the Corian product, created a one-of-a-kind look, she says.

The backsplash blended well with the warm brown tones of the cabinets as well as the darker stains on the adjacent Great Room furniture, tying the look together.

“In the island of this design, a sink is incorporated, so we included a custom sink grid in the Corian material to allow for water drainage directly into the sink. We also strategically placed the Concetto stone in a location that makes it a focal point from the Great Room,” she points out.

She concludes: “In my opinion, this project represents a growing trend of being extremely imaginative with materials and the placement of those materials. I think, going forward, kitchen and bath designers will see more clients exploring options with materials used for countertop surfaces as well as incorporating these materials elsewhere."