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.”
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.”
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.”