In Top Form

Perhaps nowhere is it more important to blend style and function than when designing kitchen countertops and islands.

These are the sentiments of Troy Adams, CKD of Los Angeles-based Troy Adams Design, who offers: “When you’re approaching [countertop and island design], you have to be very careful to strike a balance between the aesthetic value and the function of it – without making it look overdone.”

To accomplish this is very straightforward, according to Mike Stockett, sales manager for South Charleston, WV-based Warden’s Kitchen Gallery. “The crucial step to planning a nice island application is listening to the clients to see what they want. It is vital to pay close attention to spacing around the island for proper clearances of appliances, traffic flow, etc.,” he says.

According to Matt Hegemier, kitchen designer for Webster, TX-based Bay Area Kitchens, it is equally important to stay on top of design and material trends.

“The prominence of the open concept in architecture drives designers to get their clients to step outside their comfort zone and incorporate a large number of options possible now with new choices in materials,” he says.

He adds that natural materials such as granite and quartz remain hot choices, as are products with stain-resistant properties, though at the higher end, exotic materials are often seen in mix-and-match combinations.

Adams agrees, but notes that regardless of the material or materials chosen, comfort is key.

“People aren’t going out as much, so they are considering remodeling their space rather than buying new properties, and they want a comfortable environment to stay in,” he notes.

A Perfect Fit

Finding the right countertop material is critical to the success of the overall kitchen design.

Dan Thompson, president of DDK Kitchen Design Group in Glenview, IL explains: “In our higher-end kitchens, we’re seeing tremendous demand for exotic granites. These buyers want to differentiate their kitchens by selecting stones not found at the big-box stores. Ultimately, our customers are looking for that ‘wow’ factor. [Finding the right] countertop material plays a large role in creating that vibe.”

Thompson adds: “We’re also selling ‘brushed’ finishes. Consumers have expressed being tired of the polished finishes they have seen for so long. So we will combine brushed and polished stones for the perimeter and island counters within the same room.”

Adams notes: “Earth tones are very prominent. There almost seems to be a little splash of color in each kitchen we do, like a jewel. I am seeing that as a big trend: stainless steel and metals mixed with wood, as well as earth tones with small splashes of color.”

“People are getting away from the traditional granite countertop. We’re seeing that granite countertops are not being used as much. We are starting to see different types of materials, like Lavastone, to create an earthy feel, while still performing very well from a maintenance standpoint,” he states.

Thompson offers: “Materials are also being brought in from all parts of the world. Slabs from India and China are filling importers’ warehouses. These materials are being chosen because of their unique patterns, color variations and movement within the slabs.”

Of course it's not just the material choices that make a countertop pop. Equally critical is the placement, which determines both function and aesthetic appeal.

For instance, Hegemier explains: “What we will do is do away with the 42"-high countertop/bar, which breaks up a countertop into two different heights. Then, we will replace it with an extended 36"-high counter, which allows the space to be used for buffet-style spreads or increasing the working areas of the kitchen, while still keeping the seating in the kitchen.”

He adds that this approach also opens up the room and adds the possibility of creating an island that looks like furniture “and not just a box.”

Green Sheen

Eco-friendly materials remain in high demand, designers agree, and this is especially true with countertops.

“Green materials seem to be more prominent, including recycled glass and wood,” says Jeff Kuryluk, owner/president of Fairfield, CT-based Concrete Encounters.

Thompson agrees: “We’re also seeing interest in solid wood tops. Today we’re using walnut, cherry and wenge [with] distressing techniques and checkerboard patterns.”

He continues: “In addition to the quartz offerings from CaesarStone, Silestone and Zodiaq, we are seeing more countertops made from recycled materials. The recycled glass tops are well received.”

Adams offers: “People are now of the opinion that eco-friendly products can also be very cool and different from what we used to see.”

He adds: “If even 50% of the products that you use are introduced as being green, you have contributed immensely [to preserving the planet], whereas before you may not have had anything green in a kitchen.”

Top Results

Done right, countertop and island tops can provide a dynamic focal point, designers agree.

“One client came to us wanting a ‘beachy modern’ look that created seating on the island with some uniqueness,” Hegemier offers.

“We selected glass and granite on the island to give the flexibility of a 36" counter while maintaining a 42" counter that would allow us to use the glass in a way that mimics a wave,” he says.

Another project, he says, was an island done to resemble a restaurant bar, with the cooktop at a lower level “so the client could see better into larger pots.”

This was done by creating an island with granite of a different color that offered “a lot of ins and outs while concealing the outlets by facing them away from the open areas of the kitchen.”

For Adams, two recent projects he did stand out. The first, a dynamic circular kitchen geared toward the avid cook, features some interesting edge treatments to emphasize the shape of the island.

“We lowered the microwave and placed a microwave drawer in the kitchen underneath the countertop. Then you have an immediate surface to work at,” he describes.

The second was part of an Asian-themed space. “The island was created for a cook and features a sliding cutting board that goes from the cooktop to the sink,” he describes.

He continues: “There is a built-in sushi bar, a trough sink, and next to that a cutting board that doubles as a little sushi bar. So all kinds of production happened on this countertop, and we used three different surfaces, including granite, Lavastone – which was used as a circular rotating countertop surface for serving, as well as a honed Absolute Black granite.”

Thompson adds: “We are currently working on a job with a 14'-long island that will receive a 3-1/4"-thick distressed walnut wood countertop – which also features a $4,000 German silver undermounted sink.

Stockett adds: “The most unusual island we have done was nearly 17' long x 5-1/2' wide, and contained the main sink, two dishwashers and a built-in microwave cabinet. The quartz countertops were installed in two different colors at three different heights, and the finished product is definitely one of the focal points in the kitchen.”

Design Challenges

Of course designers should also be aware of the challenges inherent in creating countertop designs.

Hegemier explains: “One concern that has to be met is in finding creative locations for electrical outlets to meet code requirements.”

To address this, he says his firm will use power strips under the 1-1/2" overhang/edge of the counter by vendors such as Task Lighting and pop-up fixtures from Doug Mockett & Co.

He adds: “Outlets in the sides or backs of island furniture can really distract from the overall design, so doing something creative to minimize the impact on storage and design is something we have to always be thinking about.”

Adams agrees: “The aesthetic value is changing a little bit, so the equipment that is housed in an island is not so prominently displayed. For instance, countertops are concealing sinks and cooktops, and either through motorization or through a manual application can slide the countertop open. This enables designers to house sinks with pop-up faucets, while cooktops have been lowered and set down to the countertop themselves.”

Hegemier continues: “The questions about maintenance are always the greatest concern. High-end clients tend to choose materials based on visual appeal rather than on practicality.”

Stockett notes, “There are so many great-looking colors and patterns to pick from that it can be overwhelming. Often consumers will see large ornate islands in magazines or on TV and not realize how much space they take up and how costly they can become.”

Kuryluk adds: “The main challenges facing designers with countertops and islands appears to be sizing fixtures. It is now mandatory that we have everything that touches the counter on hand at the template.”

Hegemier says: “Ultimately, the challenges are and always will be listening to the client so that the designer can create something that feels truly unique to the client.”

Royal Treatment

In most cases, it’s not a good idea to go “over the edge,” but that all changes when talking about countertop edge treatments.

Thompson explains: “The edge details are becoming more elaborate. Large ogee edges requiring multiple passes of the router during fabrication are becoming the norm. The thickness of the edges is also getting more robust. Clients are asking for 2", 3" and 4" built-up edges to give the stone a more substantial feel.”

Hegemier adds: “Eclectic or transitional kitchens are fast becoming commonplace, and with that, square and simpler edges with shorter overhangs of 3/4" and custom edges are entering the market as well.”

Stockett sees rounded, beveled and ogee edges as his big sellers.

“In a modern-looking project, you’re seeing a squared edge with eased edges and no fancy ornate detailing. It is usually thin, like 1/2", or thick, like 4"-6",” describes Adams.

He concludes: “Even though the countertops are still 3/4", the edge treatment is routed to give the look of a very thin edge.”