A Cut Above

Kitchen designers are accustomed to creating cutting-edge spaces, but when it comes to countertop designs, they tend to take the idea quite literally. Indeed, everything from the edge treatment, material selection and color to the shape, size and functional properties must be examined in order to ensure the right “fit,” whether the client’s desire is a durable, bacteria-resistant island top or a fossil stone countertop with maximum “wow” power.

But while countertops are key to creating visual impact in the kitchen, Bonnie Hufnagel, CKD for Ridgewood, NJ-based Ulrich, asserts that kitchen designers should always revert to “form follows function” when embarking on a countertop project.

“A busy couple with several children will place different demands on the counter surface than retired Baby Boomers who eat out several times a week, for instance. Therefore, designers must know the environment in which the countertop will be installed in order to make the best choices,” she says.

Elizabeth Spengler, ASID, president and CEO of Oro Valley, AZ-based Dorado Designs, agrees: “Appropriate materials and ergonomics that address specific function are paramount [to any successful countertop design].”

This is equally true when topping off an island. Spengler explains: “Islands are continuing to develop as the location to gather for family meals and for entertaining guests. Multi-level islands are also becoming a trend due to the growing size of islands in today’s kitchens, and the multiple tasks that they are used for.” This often means the countertop will be more complex, with multiple surfaces chosen to facilitate a variety of tasks. Successfully integrating multiple materials into the space without creating a disjointed feeling can be challenging, particularly in smaller spaces.

And there’s no one “right” choice for this, designers agree. “Since there is no completely impervious product in the world, clients must be educated on the pros and cons of any selection they may make so they can choose intelligently,” Hufnagel states.

Once the functional concerns have been addressed, then it’s time to address the aesthetics. That could mean mixing and matching materials for an eclectic feel, choosing a dramatic color or selecting an unusual material to personalize the space.

Douglas Miller, president of Fossil Interior in New York, NY, a design firm that creates and installs customized countertops and vanity tops with authentic fossil stone embedded with fish fossils, fauna and pre-historic life, states: “For us, the first objective is selecting the right stone color. We’re looking for a color that will work with the other colors in the room. Then, we focus on the fossil positioning. Since the fossils are naturally occurring in the stone, we need to find slabs that contain fossils in locations that enhance the shape of the countertop or island and avoid the sink cutouts and faucetry.”

Other designers will look to make a design statement with lava stone, concrete or some other material that lends itself to customization.

“By customizing just a few things on any particular job a designer can make the customer feel that they have a one-of-a-kind kitchen that was designed especially for them,” says Michelle Diebolt, designer/manager for La Harpe, KS-based Kitchens & More.

Au Naturel

In the age of “green,” consumers often request natural materials to punch up their countertop designs, according to designers interviewed by KBDN. But it’s not just about the environment.

Hufnagel explains: “Regardless of color or pattern, natural stone has a soothing quality to it, both visually and to the touch.” As a result, she notes that “granite and marble remain strong, with detailing of corners and edge treatments to convey traditional, transitional, and modern themes.”

Dan Whalen, assistant sales manager for Distinctive Design in Ormond Beach FL, adds: “We’re also seeing a higher demand for exotic wood counters now that granite is becoming so common.”

But while “au naturel” remains en vogue, there are plenty of variations on that theme. One of these variations involves using polished stones rather than the more common honed ones to create a more modern vibe. However, she warns that it’s important to first look at the space in terms of overall lighting before making the surfacing decision.

“Polished material on a horizontal surface can be harshly reflective if the sun hits it most of the day. On the other hand, the beauty in a matte finish can get ‘lost’ if the work area does not get good light throughout the day,” Hufnagel explains.

Cheryl Hamilton-Gray, CKD, of Carlsbad, CA-based Hamilton-Gray Design is another designer who likes the variety of options that come with using natural stone: “Granite, marble and limestone all fit into the trend of having more natural-looking finishes such as honed, sand blasted and flamed.”

It all comes down to the feeling one is looking to evoke, Hufnagel believes. For instance, she notes that both planked wood and butcher block counters add a great deal of warmth to a kitchen, while stainless steel gives a more modern, professional feel to the space.

“When designing countertops, the trick is to not limit your designs to materials that have always been used,” Spengler says, noting that her firm regularly works with new countertop products to give her designs a unique flair. “One of our favorite products is Pyrolave from France. It is made from quarried lava rock, and then an edge detail is applied, and it is glazed and fired in any color you want,” she says.

Miller notes that the fossil stone he uses is popular because it’s not only a natural material, but because it creates designs that are totally custom. “We recently completed a project for a residential client in Canada who wanted the fossil stone to be used on all kitchen surfaces. They used the stone on their countertops, island tops, and all of the backsplashes. This was a great project in that we used many different types of fossils. Some areas used smaller, more subtle, fossils and other areas used larger, bolder fossils.” The end result, he notes, was truly one of a kind.

Designers can also personalize their clients’ kitchens by mixing and matching materials to meet their aesthetic and functional requirements. Hufnagel notes that many of her clients “are mixing two or more countertop surfaces in the kitchen, for a truly personalized result. For example, clients may choose polished stone for the perimeter, and wood for the island, or lower a section of the countertop and top it with marble for rolling out dough.”

Island Ideas

In recent years, islands have become a key part of kitchens, and topping them off with the right material is critical to both the space’s aesthetic and functional value.

Appearance certainly counts, but it’s only one factor out of the many that designers must consider, says Whalen.

“My clients are insisting on great looking, low maintenance, high-performance island surfaces. I believe that this is due to busier lifestyles – these days people have less time to prepare meals,” he offers.

“I’m seeing that more islands are being used as the workhorse in the kitchen, and because countertops are being selected for function and durability, the use of solid woods is becoming more commonplace,” Hamilton-Gray states. “In many cases, working islands will have a functional counter and the additional island servicing family snacking will typically have a stone counter.”

Diebolt also notes that islands offer a great opportunity for one-of-a-kind focal points in kitchen designs, both through the surfacing material and the overall island shape.

“By customizing the shape of the island, our customers can make [what was formerly] an ordinary, rectangular-shaped island look extraordinary,” she says.

When going with a custom shape, Diebolt adds, “we use solid surface countertops to create the most intricate island shapes, since it is an easier material to work with. We still do some detailed island design with quartz, but they are not quite as intricate in shape.”

Of course deciding on the right shape for an island has as much to do with the overall space as it does with the client’s general preference. Diebolt suggests that designers follow the contour of the cabinet lines, or add a radius on the island to create a more spacious seating area.

Hufnagel adds: “The shape of the room is definitely a crucial component to designing a pleasing shape for the island. This always results in a feeling that the particular island ‘belongs’ with [that specific design].”

Getting an Edge

Designers also note the importance of the edge treatment in countertops. Whether the space calls for stark simplicity or something totally unique, the edge treatment will definitely color the feel of the space.

In some cases, the material itself can make a simple edge look unique. For instance, when designing with fossil stone, Miller notes, “Our clients tend to prefer a simpler eased edge or bullnose edge. This might be due to the layered, wood-like look created by the sediment layers found on the sides of our stone. This is a most unique look.”

Hufnagel adds: “Depending on the overall styling of the kitchen, simple ogee edges and half-bullnose edges are popular.

We’re seeing extra-thick buildups more often, as well – such as a double thickness stone for the island only, or a two- or three-inch-thick wood top build up.”

Whalen notes: “With traditional kitchens, we are still seeing the ogee edge and the triple pencil, but on the modern kitchens, we’re seeing a surge of the smaller 1/8" radius, particularly when doing the contemporary slab door cabinetry.” Whalen also sees the semi-bullnose edge treatment becoming more popular “as the asymmetric radius tends to look more substantial.”
Hamilton-Gray adds: “Edge treatments of the woods have also advanced to include ‘double ogees reversed,’ or some such exotic description to depict highly detailed and opulent-looking design elements for a natural material.”

“In the Midwest, we’re seeing thicker countertop edges and custom shape island tops,” says Diebolt. “Customers like the look of the thicker edges as this also sets their job apart from most other standard jobs.”

Spengler agrees: “Traditional applications are becoming thicker when possible and more ornate,” she notes. “The typical ogee edge is popular as well, and numerous variations and sizes are desirable. The opposite is true for the minimalistic design themes, where anything from a self-edge to a severe miter is popular. Then there is the organic look, where a chiseled look may be appropriate.”

Diebolt states: “Our customers generally like more traditional, custom-front edges, whether they are using solid surface, granite or quartz products. With the granite and quartz products, we are seeing more ogee-edge profiles and with solid surface, we are seeing more detailed profile edges.”

Surface Safety

Of course, any discussion about countertop function must include health, safety and maintenance considerations.

For families with small children or those with visual impairments, rounded corners are important, while everyone can benefit from low-maintenance, stain-resistant surfaces, designers agree.

In choosing countertop materials, it’s also critical to consider what properties the client values most. Whalen notes: “Our clients are demanding sanitary surfaces such as quartz now more than ever before.”

Hufnagel concurs: “Concerns about bacteria are always a factor to consider. There are many countertop surfaces that are nonporous, and therefore do not support the growth of bacteria, such as solid surface, engineered stone, glass and stainless steel. However, since bacteria can still lie on the surfaces of these materials, I maintain that cutting boards should always be used.”

“Antibacterial properties are a concern for many consumers when it comes to butcher block,” adds Spengler. “Yet there have been studies that confirm that wood actually kills bacteria, which is why butchers have been able to use wood surfaces for centuries without causing illness.”

“Stain-resistant surfaces are also in high demand,” says Diebolt. “The average person wants as low maintenance as possible with their countertops.”

“Ease of maintenance goes hand-in-hand with durability. I’ve repeatedly seen clients sacrifice the ‘something different’ aspect for the ‘durability’ aspect of the products they eventually choose,” Hufnagel adds.

And then there’s the issue of what’s safe for the environment. As Whalen notes, “It is refreshing to see more clients asking about ‘green’ products, although these clients are still by far the minority. I really think that it is up to us as designers to promote products that are environmentally safe.”

But whether the focus is on a unique material or design, unusual color or material mix, ease of maintenance, eco-friendly properties, or some combination of all of these, it all really comes down to making sure the countertop choices enhance both the overall aesthetics and the specific needs of the clients.

Hufnagel concludes with this insight: “Countertops are one of the first things you see when you enter the room. They can be designed to make a jaw-dropping statement in and of themselves, or they can serve as a solid foundation for other design elements meant to be featured in the room, such as a beautiful backsplash or hood. Either way, a designer must guide the client to choose products that will look beautiful and work well for years to come."