Counter Effects

While the kitchen is most often thought of as a place to prepare and share meals, today’s kitchens don’t stop at meal time. Indeed, the kitchen is where we entertain, pay bills, do homework, surf the ’Net, plan household chores and just hang out. Is it any wonder, then, that countertops need to do more than ever before to meet the needs of demanding homeowners looking to multi-task in their kitchens?

Likewise, time-strapped families want bath surfaces that look great while requiring minimal maintenance.

Additionally, as designers work to provide more personalized touches to the kitchen and bath, there’s a growing demand for more versatile countertop materials and designs that will meet a family’s functional and aesthetic needs, while also creating a unique look that will set their spaces apart from their neighbors’.

As a result, designers are increasingly seeing a demand for mix and match countertop materials, as well as low-maintenance products that provide beauty and design flexibility.

That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, who see countertop materials rapidly evolving in terms of functionality, versatility and aesthetic options.

Multi-Tasking in the Kitchen

Whether preparing food, doing homework, or serving an informal meal, consumers are busy and their countertops matter.

That means designers are being asked to specify surfaces that can stand up to all kinds of tasks – and still look beautiful doing so. “With the kitchen continuing to earn recognition as the ‘hub of the home,’ consumers today are looking for surfaces that multi-task, meaning that they are both gorgeous and easy to care for,” says Maureen McGeehan, DuPont Surfaces marketing manager for DuPont in Wilmington, DE.

“Islands are becoming somewhat larger and being used for multiple purposes [which means several kinds of countertops may be incorporated into them],” adds Ken Williamson, founder/CEO of Craft-Art Wood Countertops in Atlanta, GA.

McGeehan notes that homeowners desire “a customized kitchen that reflects their personal style and passion,” and finding “the best countertop option for their household and lifestyle” is key to achieving this.

McGeehan also states that “consumers are looking to connect with their spaces and express their personal style through design statements that reflect their individuality, so materials that are able to incorporate customizable accessories and features – such as inlays, integral knife blocks and routed cutting boards – will remain popular.”

Because versatility and personalization are so important, the biggest trend in kitchen countertops, according to Denis Buch, president of Qwinique, Unique Wood Surfaces in McHenry, IL, is “the use of multiple countertop materials in a single kitchen.”

Buch adds, “It is not unusual for a kitchen to utilize two or more different countertop materials such as stone, wood or wood and concrete.”

Indeed, designers are increasingly creating kitchens that mix and match several different countertop choices to maximize function while adding aesthetic value. Additionally, designers and manufacturers say that homeowners want an array of choices – not only in materials, but in colors, patterns, textures and customizable options.

Mix-and-match countertops are also part of a larger trend toward greater creativity and personalization in the kitchen, manufacturers note. As Brandon Calvo, chief operating officer for Cosentino USA, in Houston, TX says, “The trend is that you don’t have to follow the old rules of design and material usage. The island does not have to be a rectangle and you don’t have to use one material throughout. Mixing and matching colors, textures, shapes and even styles within a room is now the norm.”

Material Choices

While granite and other stone countertops continue to be all the rage, today’s offerings are broader in scope, enticing consumers with their great looks and easy maintenance. “The landscape of countertops has changed from synthetics to natural stone such as granite and quartz,” believes Calvo. He adds that, “Granite is a beautiful choice and has been gracing homes for decades. However, the current market is demanding more benefits and functionality in countertop surfaces, especially in high traffic areas like kitchens and baths. Quartz meets these demands.”

Indeed, the rapid growth of the quartz market in recent years suggests that while consumers love the look and feel of natural stone, they also are concerned with maintenance issues. Calvo explains that quartz “can take the daily use without staining or scratching – and it never needs sealing.” He also points out that quartz, being non-porous, is a hygienic material. Cosentino USA has taken that one step further, he notes, by offering a quartz product with built-in anti-microbial protection that actually kills germs and bacteria on the countertop between cleanings.

McGeehan agrees that “ease of maintenance is definitely a priority with consumers, who are consistently searching for ways to cut back on upkeep measures and simplify their lives.” To that end, she notes that, “Quartz surfaces never need to be sealed and are nonporous, which means they will not promote the growth of mold, mildew or bacteria.”

Tracy Bowling, marketing coordinator for CaesarStone Quartz Surfaces in Van Nuys, CA, points out that, “Homeowners want a surface that fits their busy lifestyles – they want beauty without sacrificing quality.” She adds that “Quartz surfaces are gaining momentum in the surfacing industry because of their natural beauty, durability and low maintenance.”

Likewise, solid surface remains a strong trend thanks to its versatility, good looks and reputation for easy maintenance. Dale Mandell, national sales manager for Staron Surfaces by Samsung in La Mirada, CA, sees an emerging trend within this category. He sees a growing interest in “acrylic solid surface featuring highly translucent particulates within the material,” and he adds, “The result is a unique aesthetic that allows light to refract differently on the surface, creating a surface that has visual depth and is less opaque.”

Mandell acknowledges that granite and quartz surfaces are also very popular choices for countertops. He points out, however, some of the major advantages of solid surface: “What makes solid surface particularly appealing is its composition.

It’s a unique surfacing medium that uses high-performance resin technology, resulting in a malleable material with nearly limitless design possibilities. Solid surface can be crafted and shaped in ways that are impossible to do with stone. For the end-user who is seeking something other than traditional countertop options, solid surfacing is a perfect choice because of its inherently hygienic properties and design versatility. Most manufacturers of acrylic solid surfaces offer a 10-year warranty, which typically is not available with a stone product.”

Mandell also points out that consumers put great value on durability when choosing countertop products. Solid surface, he explains can be “periodically renewed to its original condition through a minimally invasive sanding and buffing process.”

Some manufacturers and designers see wood countertops as another up and coming trend. According to Williamson, back in the ’70s and ’80s, some misinformed people came to believe that wood could present sanitary issues by harboring bacteria, making it a poor countertop choice. However, he notes that people today are better informed, with a growing percentage of homeowners now realizing that “if you clean and disinfect your countertops, no matter what material, there are no issues with bacteria.” He also points out that “Almost all countertop surfaces require maintenance.”

Buch also points out that, “Wood countertops are very easy to maintain and repair as they only require a simple oiling process.” Buch explains that water and other liquids will not penetrate the countertop as the oil will repel them. Sinks can also be easily installed in a wood countertop, provided the wood has been properly maintained, he adds.

“Wood,” says Williamson, “adds an advantage in that the nicks and tiny dents that are unsightly in other materials are part of a natural patina of wood. Distressed wood tops are very popular.”

According to Rebecca Hewing, the “warmth of wood” is returning to the kitchen in a lot of incarnations, with the growing interest in wood countertops a part of this larger trend. Hewing, who is the national sales manager, Kitchen Countertop Division, for John Boos & Co, located in Effingham, IL, sees wood surfaces as a good choice for breaking up the colder look of stone, since they add a natural sense of warmth.

Additionally, as the mix and match trend becomes increasingly popular, wood becomes a perfect complement to quartz or granite countertops.

Hewing also sees the trend toward commercial style kitchens driving interest in wood countertops, as these are commonly seen on television and in other media outlets. In particular, he sees an increased interest in the “commercial style” food prep areas such as butcher block, which also helps to facilitate gourmet cooking.

Wood countertops are also finding a new niche in the outdoor kitchen market. “The move to outdoor kitchens that began in California and Florida is continuing and driving demand for waterproof wood tops that can stand up to sheltered outdoor use,” says Williamson.

Counter Color

So, what’s the latest buzz on counter color trends? While there are always designers and homeowners looking for the latest color trends when choosing countertops, neutral colors and earth tones are currently the most popular choices, albeit with tone-on tone variations, stone-like particulates and other textural elements that take neutrals from boring and
blah to wow.

Not surprisingly, nature-inspired designs and colors remain a key trend.

Indeed, “Countertop surfaces that impart the complexity found in nature are extremely popular right now,” says McGeehan. She adds, “Consumers are using their home environments as vehicles of self-expression, and are particularly drawn to materials that lend warmth, personality and character to a room and reflect natural movement and colorations.”

According to Mandell, “Color trends in countertop materials haven’t changed radically in recent years.” Instead, earth tones and shades of white have been jazzed up to give them more textural appeal. Of course in some markets, bright colors and patterns with showy metallic accents or even embedded precious stones are turning up as a way to personalize the space. But ultimately, he believes, while there are always those looking for something unique, he maintains that “warm neutrals continue to be the first choice for the majority of homeowners,” since these are both easy on the eye, and easy to use with a variety of design styles.

Calvo concurs. While he agrees that there will always be a market for those who want something bolder and brighter in the color department, there’s still a strong contingent of consumers who will opt for the “best color for resale,” or something neutral that will be less likely to become dated over time. He says, “Color and pattern trends are very personal, and [our sales of different choices] vary from quarter to quarter, but the highest percentage of Silestone sales is the neutral color sector.”

Of course, earth tones are inherent in the wood countertop category. According to Hewing, the darker blends, including red tones, are very popular for wood surfaces. Buch points to increased sales in the medium brown tones to very dark tones, which dovetails the general trend toward darker woods in cabinetry. This, too, can be tied to the growing interest in nature-inspired spaces that incorporate a sense of warmth, with natural materials mixed and matched to provide texture and aesthetic appeal.

Dunham predicts that texture will be one of the hottest trends in the coming years, and believes that countertops of the future will feature colors that look like “concrete or suede, and feature sophisticated textures and patterns.” He also says that color is one of the features that will continue to drive designers looking to create distinctive kitchens, as well as homeowners looking to differentiate themselves from their neighbors.

Green Appeal

Manufacturers and designers are listening when it comes to consumers’ concerns about our environment. “There’s a growing social consciousness among homeowners in particular, says Mandell. “They’re realizing that their individual choices can, when taken in aggregate, add up to effects that are harmless, neutral, or detrimental to the environment. This mindset is playing out in their decision-making processes, including building materials,” he adds.

“Green is the industry buzzword,” says Calvo. He adds, “There are conferences, publications, builders and businesses emerging weekly that address green issues.” Two key green areas being addressed, according to Calvo, are “sustainability and conservation” and “indoor air quality.” An increasing number of manufacturers are using recycled materials and seeking certification that assures the consumer of a product’s “green appeal.”

McGeehan agrees that more consumers than ever are taking an interest in “selecting eco-friendly materials for their homes,” and designers are also aiding this movement by educating their clients about green products and their benefits. She also notes that younger consumers are more likely to be sensitive to environmental issues.

When it comes to countertops, durability is a major factor in a product’s green quotient, since longer lasting products mean less energy spent manufacturing, transporting and replacing them, and less overall waste. To that end, McGeehan points out that durable solid surface materials can have “any stains or scratches easily buffed out…minimizing the need to replace or dispose of them. They can also be removed, re-cut and either reinstalled as a new design or seamlessly reworked into new products.”

Buch points out that “Wood countertops are manufactured from a renewable source and therefore are considered a ‘green’ product.”

Williamson explains that “quickly renewable countertops like bamboo and lyptus are in very high demand” as well, thanks to their green appeal.

“Trees,” continues Hewing, “are the only globally abundant, renewable, biodegradable resource.”

Williamson also notes that, “Green products have the strongest demand on the West Coast and in Colorado and the Chicago markets.” Hewing has seen strong sales in the Northwest, West Coast, and some areas of New England, though most agree that this is a trend that will only continue to grow in the future.

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