Counter Distinction

In challenging times, home and family become more important than ever. That means the kitchen becomes increasingly valued, as homeowners eschew dinners out in favor of cooking or entertaining at home, and families spend more time together, taking comfort from sharing time with loved ones in a safe, familiar place.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the countertops – which are pivotal for both their functional importance and design appeal – are increasingly in the spotlight. Beauty combined with durability complement everybody’s favorite room. And with the kitchen evolving into a multi-functional space that is often used by many people, for many different tasks – sometimes all at the same time – it’s becoming more and more common to see mix-and-match countertop materials used throughout the space.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see glass, wood, natural stone and laminate juxtaposed in the kitchen, creating a wealth of design possibilities, while enhancing function. For those on a budget, this also allows homeowners to incorporate high-end materials while getting more bang for the buck – key in a struggling economy.

Green products, too, are gaining a foothold in an increasingly eco-conscious world, as natural materials and countertop materials with recycled content garner interest among some consumers.

Both natural and engineered stone products remain strong sellers, and nature-inspired hues that convey depth and dimension remain one of the hottest trends. That’s according to countertop manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, who cited soothing colors, rich textures, nature-inspired designs, value-priced offerings and unique products as some of the hottest trends in today’s countertop market.

Material Choices

When it comes to material choices, John P. Scott III notes, “Engineered stone and granite are the most popular choices today; solid surface has definitely declined the past five years; and, laminate countertops are making a comeback because of the new designs offered and the affordability [of the product].” Scott, v.p. for distribution sales at The Swan Corp., in St. Louis, MO, sees a continued trend toward mixing and matching countertop materials to maximize functional and aesthetic appeal.

Both manufacturers and designers see granite and quartz products continuing to gain ground, along with laminates that imitate the look of stone. Wood countertops are also seeing renewed interest, lending a warm and natural appearance to the kitchen while offering versatility.

Much ado has been made about recent media reports that stating that some granite can emit potentially dangerous radon emissions (see related story, page 14). The Cleveland, OH-based Marble Institute of America has countered that the claims are misleading, and merely part of a competitive attack that needlessly panics homeowners. But while some kitchen and bath dealers have seen consumers backing off from granite as a result of the controversy, others continue to see granite remaining mostly strong.

Another countertop product that is showing strength in the marketplace is laminate. With the nation’s current financial concerns, the laminate market has seen sales increase thanks to its more affordable price tags.

“Laminate countertops continue to be a good price point for many consumers,” states Trisha Schmitt, marketing communications manager for VT Industries in Holstein, IA. Schmitt, who admits that “natural products are growing in popularity,” nevertheless points out some of the advantages of the new premium laminates.

“I have noticed a large increase toward the new premium laminates that have more of a three dimensional look,” Schmitt explains. “The new products also do a better job emulating natural products such as granite. And with advances in post-form technology, you can get the granite look on the edges of the countertops instead of the brown line you get on self lay-up tops.”

Of course, the laminate tops do not require sealing like stone products and are easy to maintain, as well, she points out, noting that this addresses consumer demand for easy-to-maintain products.

Paul Grothouse, owner of The Grothouse Lumber Co. in Germansville, PA, is convinced that in an ever-evolving countertop market, wood’s time has come. According to Grothouse, the wood trend is up and offers a luxury look combined with high performance.

“Today, people are looking to put varied surfaces in the kitchen – they don’t want it to look like a mausoleum,” he insists. He continues that a wood island, for example, can greatly complement stone used in other kitchen areas, warming up the entire space.

Grothouse also states that a wood countertop is not only easy to maintain, but “steps up the function in the kitchen.” With built-in options to hold knives, and the ability to cut safely on the counter, the wood countertop can be quite convenient.

These days hardwood countertops can be designed in either a contemporary or traditional style, he notes, adding that a variety of grains and finishes, as well as many intricate patterns, offer designers a nearly limitless array of options.

Nature’s Influence

As for colors and patterns, Scott notes, “Granite-like colors and patterns are the focus because of the real granite and engineered stone influence.” He has also seen less demand for solid colors, with more consumers gravitating toward designs that offer depth and dimension.

While there are always those going for an edgy look, manufacturers agree that nature remains a prime influence in countertop colors, with design professionals and their customers turning to the great outdoors to inspire their kitchen designs.

“Natural, earth-tone colors continue to dominate mainstream appeal,” states Tom Schneider, director of new business development for LG Surfaces in Peoria, AZ. Schneider. He says that this trend is driven by consumers concerned with resale home value, and adds that there is a strong desire to see “directional movement and different textures and finishes,” as well.
Kathy Calhoun, laminate and solid surface marketing manager for Wilsonart International in Temple, TX, agrees that consumers do not want a “flat appearance” in their countertops. She says that today’s laminates offer “a luxury look that gives the dimension of granite and is more affordable.”

Calhoun also sees nature’s palette influencing color choices. “Most consumers are striving for the natural look with warm browns and soft tans,” she says. Calhoun adds, however, that others are looking for “comforting and simple shades of blue, violet and green.”

Schmitt also concurs with other manufacturers that, “Natural-looking colors and patterns have become very popular.”
However, Arik Tendler, president of CaesarStone Quartz Surfaces in Van Nuys, CA, has a different take on this. He believes, “Consumers aren’t really looking for patterns that imitate granite. They are looking at patterns and textures that other products can’t provide.” With regard to colors and patterns, he states, “Whites and grays are continuing to be requested in large numbers.”

Grothouse notes that consumers are demanding darker colors for wood countertops. “Black walnut is the number one wood right now,” he explains, despite the fact that only three years ago, it ranked a mere number five. Another very popular wood for countertops is sapele, a mahogany-like wood grown in Africa. Consumers tend to prefer this stained dark as well, he notes.

Growing Green Trend

Across the board, countertop manufacturers agree that the green trend is on a fast track. Consumers are looking for alternatives that will be healthier for their families and for the earth. While most manufacturers interviewed are offering some environmentally friendly products, the choices are not yet extensive. The products also can be pricey, which can make them a tough sell in today’s challenging economy. And in many cases, dealers find themselves fielding questions about green choices for countertop materials, but the consumer’s budget simply won’t allow for it.

Still, manufacturers feel certain that, in the long term, consumer demand for greener countertop alternatives will continue to grow, particularly as they come down in price.

Valentin Tijeras, product manager, Spain and USA, for Cosentino, in Stafford, TX, points out, “More and more consumers want to know where the materials come from and how the production of these materials impact the environment.”

Schneider concurs: “Environmental consciousness regarding the green movement transcends our industry. It resonates with consumers in every aspect of their lives. Whether it is through conservation of energy measures or recycled products, the green movement is impacting lifestyles…‘Green’ countertop products are now more accepted primarily due to their improvement in aesthetic designs. What started out as a small minority of people has grown into masses, and this is shaping manufacturers’ new product development strategies. It is an emerging niche that will continue to grow substantially over the next five to 10 years.”

Karen Righthand, director of marketing for Vetrazzo in Richmond, CA, also sees the green trend as one that is here to stay.

“Green is really hot,” she points out. She sings the praises of the recycled glass countertop, championing it as “a very clean choice” for the home. Recycled glass from bottles, windshields and plate glass windows is saved from the landfill and transformed into beautiful countertop options. The process, incidentally, is not energy intensive, says Righthand.

She adds that demand for glass countertops has been steadily rising across the country in general. “Glass countertops are greener and at the same time, more gorgeous than ever,” says Righthand.

The glass products tend to have a more contemporary look, but Righthand claims that they can work in a traditional home, as well. Rounded edges tend to be the most popular, although other options are available. While the glass countertop market is popular with upscale consumers, Righthand believes that the cost will decline as the market matures.

“We as manufacturers must develop green products to stay viable in today’s marketplace,” reasons Scott. “The movement is very strong and political, which will influence the usage of products. If you are not green, you will be at a disadvantage,” he adds.

Beyond the Kitchen

Once seen as exclusively a kitchen and bath product, upscale countertop products are now turning up in other rooms, as well. Calhoun says, “A new consumer market exists with the trend to bring amenities from primary to secondary living areas. For example, laminate…could work for a potter’s bench or other areas associated with a favorite hobby.”

Schmitt agrees. “We have found people are putting out tops in other areas of the house besides the kitchen and bathroom. It is a great way to use post form because it is affordable and can have so many different looks, whether it is in the garage workroom or in the family office.”

Of course, the increase in the number of outdoor kitchens has also had a positive impact on the countertop market. Upscale consumers enjoy expanding their living space to include the yard, and they are looking to design this space beautifully and functionally. What this means attractive and durable countertops will provide key prep space while enhancing the outdoor kitchen experience.

Calhoun points out, “A popular trend emerging is the blending of indoor and outdoor living. You are seeing a trend in designing kitchen areas to address where they stop or begin. The boundaries are somewhat blurred and move based on the seasons.”

As for the future, manufacturers agree that there will be more demand for green options, unique design applications and multi-functional designs incorporating low-maintenance materials Tijeras points out that the younger folks tend to look for “bolder colors, new shapes and new concepts, so this may well be a trend of the future.” He adds, “People in big cities used to be more trendy and look for the latest thing,” while those in rural areas “used to be more conservative.” He believes, however, that this gap is closing. Modern technology and travel, a proliferation of TV shows and magazines, and traveling home shows have allowed consumers to explore a broader array of design ideas, and these will continue to color the future of countertop design.

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