From the Top

It’s been said, “There are two ways of being creative: One can sing and dance, or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.” The latter part of this sentiment rings true when referring to kitchen and bath designers, who are charged with creating inspiring spaces every day. To accomplish this task, they search for new materials and methods that allow their clients to cook, entertain, unwind or handle everyday workloads. The finished spaces are often buttressed by eye-catching, durable countertops that act as a focal point for the room.

Serena L. Lehn, CKD, of Annapolis, MD-based Kitchen Encounters, explains: “People want solutions that add interest. As designers, we want to create something beautiful, but we must also make sure it’s practical and works with the overall design.”

Consumers are broadening their sensibilities with the hope of having a one-of-a-kind layout – a movement designers can capitalize on by providing a greater choice of textures, colors and shapes, notes Anna Marie Fanelli of Floor & Décor.

“Today’s client will try different materials to get a stylish look for their kitchen, bath or even outdoor kitchen. The countertop is significant, and deserves consideration in the entire planning process,” reports Fanelli, who is designer and co-owner of the Tenafly, NJ-based tile, stone and plumbing studio.

While Fanelli notes that granite remains “the staple selection,” clients are looking at more unconventional materials as well as showing interest in clean, contemporary, minimalist layouts.

Jan Niebler of Jan Niebler Interiors in Jefferson, WI notes the importance of having options when selecting a surface.

“You always want a top with good performance. It should coordinate with the color scheme, and offer the possibility of accommodating an undermount sink,” she says.

Having design flexibility, however, does not mean forcing the issue, says Tim Derrington, architect with Webber & Studio, based in Austin, TX. “It’s only with a functional understanding [of the countertop] that an intentional solution can emerge. Therefore, the ‘creative’ reveals itself when a design is distilled,” he says.

“It’s similar to kids looking at clouds. If you have an image in your mind and try to find a matching cloud, you’ll never see it, but if you let the shapes reveal themselves, you’ll see things you could have never imagined,” Derrington explains.

It’s not advisable to put form before function with countertops, agrees Fanelli.

“If a client is sloppy, I would recommend a material that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, because we all know what that top will look like in a couple of weeks. Know your client before selecting material that looks nice but does not work with their daily routine.”

Derrington concludes: “[The key] is to be curious and pay attention. Pay attention to your client, to ergonomics, and to the products, and keep it simple.”

Natural selection

According to Steve Wauson, co-owner and builder for Craftsman Homes of Austin, based in West Lake Hills, TX, a greater variety of natural stones – including Jerusalem stone, soapstone, travertine and limestone – are being used in current designs.

“The key is to match the unique aesthetics of each project to a suitable type and color of countertop,” he says.

Fanelli sees her clients clamoring for pure white crystallized glass top materials – ones with no surface scratching, watermarks or staining.

Honed stones, such as marbles, are also in demand, as are exotic selections of onyx material.  

Mary Kathryn Timoney, kitchen and bath designer at Atlanta, GA-based Design Galleria notes: “Although clients still love and are using classic ‘white’ marbles, we are seeing an increased interest in colored marbles. Marbles with more movement and color are not only interesting and more dramatic, they are more forgiving as they are more likely to mask a stain.”

She adds: “Although we select countertops based on how they support the color scheme of the space, it can also be an element that supports the architectural details of the space. For instance, if the space contains arched openings, I may emphasize this feature by introducing an arch in the hood and again in the curve of the countertop at the eating overhang or on the ends of an island. This creates unity through the repetition of the arch.”
Niebler adds: “The material must coordinate color schemes, and be able to hold solid surface or stainless steel undermount sinks.”

Roger Shollmier, CEO and chief designer for Tulsa, OK-based Kitchen Ideas adds: “We often use more than one countertop surface in a kitchen [to add interest]. We once used granite on the island, concrete on the perimeter and a 4" thick chop block at the short-term work area.”

“Though there are initial concerns about staining, clients typically opt for these materials because they are unique and natural,” Wauson adds.

Staining issues are typically addressed by using sealers, picking out the right stone for the particular application and encouraging clients to accept the patina of aging as part of the beauty of the natural product, he says.

Fanelli concludes: “Selecting the right countertop material is usually a journey, but when you have the right selection, it makes any space a hit.”

Green genes

Of course, in today’s market, the demand for green-based countertops continues to grow. Kitchen and bath designers acknowledge that clients not only have fashion sense but environmental consciousness as well.

Fanelli offers: “The green movement definitely influences my daily selections of countertop material. In fact, I even had a client who was interested in Paperstone – which is slabs of recycled paper – because she loved the texture and color selection so much. In her case, it was the burgundy color that matched her cabinets.” 

Derrington adds: “Our clients have a keen awareness of environmental and energy issues that are becoming more refined. They want a surface that is beautiful and durable, but they also want a surface that is produced and shipped responsibly.”

Specifically, he cites recycled-content surfaces that incorporate recycled glass, porcelain and engineered stone – as well as local stone products – as being the most highly requested.

Wood countertops are seeing a rise in popularity as well, Lehn points out. “There are so many beautiful woods to choose from, and they can be designed in a variety of thicknesses and edge treatments,” she says. “We have a client who lives in a farmhouse built in the 1800s, and we’re using wood from an old tree to create the wood top. That adds a special touch.”

Lehn continues: “We use wood tops to create an accent or furniture-style piece, particularly for islands.”

“In more modern applications, we’re seeing increased interest in dramatically grained and exotic woods for cabinet fronts,” adds Timoney. “With such a strong element, it’s critical to support it with a complementary countertop surface. While we want something that is strong, we don’t want it to compete, as a granite with lots of movement might do.”

“On thick slabs of stone, we usually ease the edges to emphasize the bulk of the natural product,” offers Wauson. “Sometimes, when the product is not as thick as we would like, we bond a matching stone edge treatment to make the counter appear thicker.”

Project profiles

For the designers interviewed, their recent work reflects some distinctive countertop options.

“I had clients who really wanted something unique, but they also needed to be able to use it. It was important to them to be able to eat in the kitchen as a family,” says Lehn with regard to a kitchen she co-designed with Mark T. White, CKD, owner of Kitchen Encounters.

Specifically, she wanted to create an island area that incorporated the traditional idea of the circular table, which would work well for both family meals and the preparation of ethnic food – a mainstay in the household.

“It was tight, but we had just enough room. We were able to fit a circular teak top at a raised level for seating, a lower section for baking on the other end and, for the clean-up section, a stainless apron-front sink flanked by a dishwasher and pull-out double waste bin,” she reports.

The island’s 2"-thick circular teak top features grain that runs on the diagonal. It is split with the straight portion of the top to help emphasize the circular effect, Lehn explains.

It was a practical solution for the space, and all of the materials in the kitchen complement one another, she comments, including the black granite countertops with copper flecks, a copper hood and the hardware.

“The mixture of woods adds interest to the room, as does the green glass tile, which complements the wood and makes a nice backdrop to the kitchen,” she notes.

Timoney reports that she had a client who wanted a huge island that would feel like a landing strip, without numerous seams in the stone. “By incorporating various heights and materials, we were able to keep the desired linear footage of countertop while making it visually interesting,” she comments.  

She notes that the main portion of the island featured a large stone top with a cooktop, yet the countertop did not exceed the length of a single slab, so seams were eliminated. Meanwhile, the eating overhang was raised slightly and fabricated in wood to create the feeling of a table. 

“The end of the island was designed as a raised piece, and the other countertops were attached to it. The result was loads of prep space, a seating area, a landing area, a staging area for serving and a great spot for a decorative arrangement,” Timoney says.

Derrington also shares an “island adventure” done by David E. Webber, a project for which Derrington served as project manager. The island was designed for a couple who enjoys cooking and entertaining.

“The goal was to create a lot of countertop space, as well as provide storage, a large sink, a separate – but connected – small dining area with seating and a small staging area with mini bar. We created a multi-faceted pair of objects that could address all of the concerns, and discovered others that were originally unconsidered,” he says.  

The team first created the staging area/mini bar to be a spatial divider that marks the transition of the kitchen to the dining room. “This maintains a literal openness that is important to the function of the two spaces, but also defines a difference between zones for the users,” he says.

The island incorporated all of the other needs at a single height. In addition to being a multi-purpose station, the remainder of the island is a spatial divider that separates the cooking and prep side from the circulation as well as the seating side, notes Derrington.

Getting cooking

The right surfaces are always critical to the kitchen, but are especially important when the client enjoys cooking.

“I had a client who is an avid cook. He owns several restaurants and is particular about this kitchen. I used a porcelain tile that looks like stone yet ensures easy maintenance,” Fanelli offers.

“Whenever possible, we like to incorporate a large island into the kitchen design,” adds Shollmier, “because it is ideal both for cooking and entertaining. “

In some cases, he has raised a ‘platform’ in the center of the island that offers visual relief as well as an opportunity to introduce another surface, such as onyx, which would be lit from below.

“One of our favorite counters to incorporate is a 4"-thick maple butcher block, with a second prep sink next to it, and a pull-out trash cabinet below. This area is prime for preparing vegetables, making sandwiches and a lot of the short-term activities. The end-grain is very durable, and the nature of the wood fights bacteria,” he offers.

Of course, the use of creative countertops is not reserved for the kitchen.

“One of my clients loves natural stone, and wanted the children’s bath to be environmentally friendly. We choose a countertop with a pearl finish that added drama, plus has ‘green’ features,” Fanelli says. “It also works well with the cabinet and makes the bathroom look transitional. The design objective was met and the client’s personal style was definitely addressed.”

Wauson adds: “We just finished a project where we used Jerusalem stone. It serves as a perfect complement to the travertine, glass tile, glass vessel sink and brushed chrome fixtures and hardware that were used.”

Designers agree that choosing the right countertop for both function and beauty can set the stage for the design of the entire room. The range of surface choices allows designers the freedom to create an environment in which great cooking – and great relaxation – can flourish.