Surface Style

With house prices down, homeowners are more likely to be staying put, and without the concern about resale value, many are being more creative in their design choices. For countertops and surfaces, that translates to more colors, patterns and interesting mixing and matching of materials to create exciting visual focal points in the kitchen.

In fact, manufacturers recently surveyed by KBDN agree that unique materials and patterns are top of the list for surfacing trends.

At the same time, budget concerns, eco awareness and nature themes continue to impact the countertop market.

Choices, Choices

“Countertop material offerings really exploded in the last 15 years,” says Jean Pauwels, distributor/marketer of Raleigh, NC-based Pyrolave, a company that offers a unique glazed volvic lava stone surface. Previously, he says, granite, marble, laminate and solid surface were among the only choices. Now there are surfaces made from paper, concrete, recycled material, quartz, stainless steel, zinc, natural stone, glass, ceramic and more.

“Designers are looking for new materials and they have plenty of choices,” agrees Bertrand Charest, president of ThinkGlass, a glass countertop manufacturer in Boisbriand, Quebec.

Because there are so many options, consumers can shop within a wide range of price points, adds Lorenzo Marquez, marketing v.p. of Stafford, TX-based Cosentino North America. “For designers, value means providing clients with the solution that delivers the style they’re looking to achieve, while staying within the budget prescribed for the project. Sourcing reliable materials that deliver on quality and performance is key to enhancing a designer’s relationship with the client,” he states.

Mary Warner, brand manager at Vetrazzo in Tate, GA sees recycled materials as the new wave of material, with glass steadily growing. “People see natural stone and they relate that to a decade ago,” she says, “whereas recycled glass surfaces demonstrate an awareness of recycling or sustainability. These surfaces, often available in myriad colors, also allow homeowners and designers to create very personal spaces.” She adds, “Gone are the days of house flipping. People are staying put and want to make a mark on the space in which they spend a lot of time.”

Trisha Schmitt, v.p./corporate marketing for VT Industries in Holstein, IA says, “The popular looks include both natural stone and laminates and edge treatments that have a stone-like appearance.” She cites the company’s new 1/8"-radius Marbella edge as an example. “With marble becoming such a trending countertop material, our Marbella edge paired with the new laminates can really give you that look at an affordable price,” she says.

Laminate designs that mimic large-scale exotic stones are also popular because they provide new options to consumers looking for a low maintenance stone look at a more affordable price point, according to Gerri Chmiel, senior design manager at Formica Corp. in Cincinnati, OH. “Manufacturers are striving to create new surfacing designs that reflect the look of trendy materials at lower price points,” she says.

Dale Mandell, sales director – North America for Samsung Surfaces based in Los Angeles, CA says, “We’re seeing increased interest in countertop materials that are somewhat less traditional. For instance, we’ve noticed an increased demand for colors and patterns that are less similar to granite, more monotone and modern, with subtle design elements such as metallic flecks.”

Economizing with Style

While the economy continues to present challenges, the plethora of countertop materials available creates designer options even for those with smaller budgets. “Exotic granites and engineered stones remain popular for homeowners undertaking expensive kitchen renovation projects, while new large-scale laminate surfacing options appeal to homeowners who desire an exotic look [on a] smaller budget,” says Chmiel.

The economy has also led to more mixing and matching of materials, according to Warner. “We see a lot of kitchen islands made of one of the more vibrant Vetrazzo mixes, but then the perimeter is completed in a natural stone or neutral quartz material,” she says.

While sometimes compromises must be made in the face of an economic downturn, manufacturers don’t believe consumers are trading style for value. “I think they are getting savvier about how they use their more precious materials. They’re turning the higher priced materials into the focal point of their spaces,” says Marquez. He asserts that consumers want to feel good about the purchase they made, perhaps by having an impact on the local economy or environment. However, “Beauty still trumps the feel-good value of investing in something that is recycled, so if it doesn’t look good, most consumers and designers will pass on it,” he adds.

Consumers are becoming more cautious about what they’re buying, agrees Lisa Herreth, product designer/marketing specialist for Hanwha Surfaces, whose North American headquarters is in Atlanta, GA. “As in fashion, you might buy one quality item in a versatile color rather than several less expensive items in a variety of trendy colors. But a durable countertop, such as quartz, will last a lifetime, and that’s valuable,” she says.

In addition to choosing their products wisely, some homeowners are employing what Chmiel calls the “save and splurge” strategy, where they save on some aspects of the kitchen – such as painting or re-facing existing cabinets – while splurging on others, such as countertops.

Schmitt says, “I don’t think you have to compromise the design of a space anymore in order to get a better value. With all of the new laminate looks paired with the new edge profiles, I think consumers can really get the look they want at an affordable price.”

Contrasting Trends

Two contrasting style trends are impacting the countertop market: the trend toward countertops being used to add drama versus the trend toward quieter, more nature-inspired looks. “There is certainly a trend toward adding an accent piece in the kitchen,” says Charest. “Seventy percent of our sales include LED for lighting the tops and to change the mood of the kitchen.”

Warner agrees. “People are getting bolder, more personal with their spaces,” she says. “With a slow economy, people are investing in their home with the expectation that they might be there for a while, so we’re seeing more movement of our colored slabs in shades ranging from turquoise to red as much as neutrals.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Pauwels sees clients “looking for a minimalist look, going back to a more simple and sustainable way of life.”

Rebecca Hewing, national sales manager, kitchen countertop division for butcher block manufacturer John Boos & Co. in Effingham, IL, agrees: “Consumers will always have [the] desire for a true natural element in their kitchen,” she says.

While natural looks remain in demand, even those sometimes get a more dramatic overhaul. For instance, Herreth sees patterns moving away from “safe” looks to those with a more exotic, heavy-vein appearance. “The shift to unique patterns has brought customers back to earth tones and neutral colors,” she comments.

Schmitt adds, “Texture continues to be a big trend. I think people like the idea of natural products and, in nature, you often see texture.”

Bold Efficiency

The trend toward smaller, more efficient kitchens has also had an impact on the countertop market. Mandell says this trend has increased interest in higher-end materials, such as quartz, as well as acrylic solid-surface countertops that emulate quartz.

Chmiel says that while smaller kitchens may mean less countertop space, the primary effect is on the kitchen layout rather than the countertop material. “Layouts are smarter, using techniques such as ‘CounterScaping’ to create zones using various vertical heights and materials to maximize usable space. In non-work areas, part of the countertop may deviate from standard height to provide storage underneath.”

Herreth feels that smaller kitchens offer a great opportunity to turn the countertops into an eye catching focal point, and she notes, “I think that in a small kitchen, you should add a pop of color or a bold pattern on a countertop and keep the rest more reserved.”

Of course not everyone is seeing a trend toward smaller kitchens. Marquez says Cosentino is seeing an increase in the average stone square footage used in most projects. He adds, “Layering different materials, finishes or colors in the kitchen can add an entirely new depth,” and he notes, “some consumers are starting to use a two-tone countertop design, selecting a product with more movement for the island and a solid hue around the perimeter.”

Hewing says that John Boos is seeing the trend toward multiple materials as well, where butcher block is integrated with stone/granite and other surfaces.

Durability & Maintenance

While the look of a countertop certainly impacts product choices, durability and ease of maintenance are just as important. “Due to the economy, we expect that the average life span of a kitchen may increase from seven years to nine or 10 years,” says Chmiel. “Understanding that kitchen countertops function as everything from food prep areas to homework hubs, we continually look for ways to create hardworking yet beautiful laminate finishes that maintain their original beauty over time.”

Interestingly, geography plays a role in the importance of durability, according to some manufacturers. As Warner explains, “People want a durable work surface in their kitchens. However, the demand for durability over beauty remains higher in the Midwest. On the East and West coasts, people seem more willing to sacrifice durability for [aesthetics].”

The Green Scene

Eco awareness also remains a key trend in kitchen design, and this is particularly true with countertops.

“Manufacturers and designers alike are paying more attention to producing and using more environmentally responsible products. I think it is not only important for the raw materials to be green, but also for the manufacturing processes to be environmentally friendly,” says Schmitt.

Pauwels concurs that green is on the rise, with consumers looking more closely into the impact of materials on the environment. “Most manufacturers tend to present a super green product but the reality is no manufactured material is completely green,” he says. “However, efforts are made to lessen [the impact of the manufacturing process] by working on the chain of production from raw material to delivery.”

Herreth concludes, “I think, in the near future, people will move away from countertops made exclusively from finite sources and look at ones that incorporate recycled components and practices.” KBDN