Counter Punch

Larger kitchens and a continued interest in customization are leading to a rather “natural” progression for kitchen countertops and islands. And, as a result, kitchen designers recently interviewed by KBDN are finding that islands and countertops are – quite literally – taking on a larger role in the kitchen.

Jeff Kuryluk, president of Fairfield, CT-based Concrete Encounter, explains: “I am noticing that size is a driving force and [subsequently] I get a lot of people who want one-piece islands. For instance, we’ve done 12'x6' islands in one piece, so you are able to get the big island, make it a focal point and create a seamless look.”

Lori Jo Krengel, CMKBD, president of St. Paul, MN-based Kitchens by Krengel, adds: “People are looking for unique applications in countertops, including specialty finishes, such as honed, antiqued or flamed.”

And, this trend is leading to more individualized, transitional-looking layouts for islands, she points out. “The trend is in more furniture-looking pieces or components in a European-style kitchen. So, they are looking for a balance of furniture applications that complement one another,” she offers. “It’s always about trying to create balance and weight with
the spaces.”

Part of creating that balance has to do with making sure different surfaces don’t work at cross purposes. Bev Adams, CMKBD, and CEO for Denver, CO-based Interior Intuitions, offers this advice: “Depending on whether the flooring is a horizontal line, [the countertop] should blend in some sort of material match. If you’re going to have a structural pattern on the floor and a structural pattern on the horizontal surface of the countertops, there needs to be some sort of blend so [the countertop pattern] isn’t isolated and its impact isn’t taken away from by the bottom surface. The whole thing then becomes a composition.”

Indeed, the key to creating the perfect kitchen island is to design a layout that not only functions smoothly, but also resonates with the client in a very personal way.

Hal Davis, director of operations for Redding, CA-based Estate Granite & Marble, explains: “Function and fashion have to be balanced in accordance with the client’s realistic lifestyle. We find our clients are preparing meals for their families more and more, as well as entertaining [more], and this sets function at the forefront of the design.”

Adams cites certain layout challenges when embarking on countertop and island applications – including sink details during installation.

“Those can be tricky depending on where the flange is drilled in the sink or whether the faucet is going through the whole deck. If you have a built-up edge of 2-1/4" or if the countertop is really thick and you have this big edge around the farmhouse sink, the faucets will never be connected – it can’t work,” she advises.

She continues: “The other thing is to finish the underside of the overhangs. I would suggest doubling the stone all the way back underneath the countertop so it is smooth and has a lot more value – and it doesn’t cost so much more to do it, either.”
Kuryluk agrees: “I have always felt that anything that is exposed should be smooth.”

Regardless of what elements are integrated into an island, Davis believes it is all about giving the clients what they want.

“The goal is to try and comply with the expectations of the clients and to remind them that in a few months time, they will have long forgotten what extra expenses they might have incurred, but the beauty of the [newly designed space] will be around for as long as they own the home,” he concludes.

Natural Habitat

According to Adams, natural materials remain all the rage – and the choices are vast.

“There are a variety of surfaces available, so it is not just one material that people are selecting. Rather, they are combining them,” she explains. “Therefore, we’re seeing a lot of wood with metal, stainless steel countertops, slates, serpentines that have been antiqued, and leather-finished granites that look like leather and have an antiquing to them.”

She continues: “The polished granite is disappearing as well, so if it’s going to be a contemporary design, it is going to go into metals or woods or honed surfaces, such as honed slate or honed marble.”

Christine Moritz, designer for Chicago, IL-based Spaces & Views, agrees: “We see a lot of mixing of stone, wood and metals throughout the kitchen. We strongly recommend this to break up the kitchen, add points of interest and help make each space truly unique to each client. It creates a more custom look than using the same materials throughout.”

Kuryluk adds: “We do a lot of jobs where half might be granite or a natural stone and the other half concrete. Or, the islands may be wood or some other material that combines with it. We have even done concrete in English-style Tudors to contemporary homes.”

He sees earth tones and subtle green hues growing in popularity and complementing the warm feel and look of concrete.

“We have also seen a greater desire to use multiple color themes in the kitchen,” adds Davis. “The clients are often desirous yet irresolute, not wanting to make a design faux pas in their home.”

According to Davis, typical applications include islands in a granite color different from surrounding decks.

“People are going toward marble or a true stone, but are also going to concrete and butcher block, glass and more metals,”

Krengel adds. “Maybe the materials can be more pliable as to be custom applied to that homeowner’s application.”

She continues: “We’re seeing more people do butcher block, but then using a surface impervious to water around that area.”

Adams adds: “The most recent kitchen we did had many different materials – copper backsplashes, serpentine granite and slate. Materials are very textured right now. That is going to be the focal point in the countertop.”

Krengel adds: “People are leaning toward one massive island with lots of textile feel and variations in the countertop material color itself.”

“Most clients like the idea of mixing materials, but they want to be sure all of the products are not only aesthetically pleasing, but durable as well,” Moritz concludes.

Island Applications

According to those interviewed, islands allow designers to flex their creative muscles, both from an aesthetic and a functional standpoint.

“If you’re doing an island, you have the opportunity to [play around with] the material,” Adams notes. “However, you don’t want to get carried away and have some of the upper decks [feature] a different material than the lower decks because it makes everything look too different. The proportions are really essential and the designers should be able to proportionalize those.”

Krengel concurs: “If you have all of your drama going on in the perimeter, an island is going to get lost. Therefore, we feel that the island needs to be punched up through lots of visual interest in either countertop materials or the cabinetry.”

But there are some unique challenges associated with accomplishing this feat.

“The first main challenge is what to include in the island, such as whether there should be seating, how many people should be able to sit or whether they should be sitting on a curve,” Kuryluk explains. “The second challenge is getting the piece into the home. Some homes in my area are on the beach and have second-story kitchens. So, when we have a countertop that weighs 800 pounds, getting it up a flight of stairs is nearly impossible. You have to be creative.”

Sized to Fit

Indeed, as the size of the kitchen grows, so, too, does the inclusion of islands – a trend Adams believes to be beneficial to the layout.

“In a modern kitchen, people usually want one central gathering area – which would be the island,” she says. “People can sit or stand against the island and chat…but there should be a comfort zone [so that] people can stand two feet or four feet apart. [That will help] determine the size and placement of the island.”

Kuryluk states: “I’m seeing kitchens getting a lot bigger and having more room for an island. People are always hanging out in the kitchen, so it makes sense to create an area to sit and relax.”

Krengel, however, notes that designers need to be cautious when implementing such a large focal point in the kitchen.
She explains: “There comes a point where you cannot get to the middle of that island without actually climbing on the island, so you want to make sure from a functionality standpoint that it’s not too big.”

She continues: “You want to create some visual interest [if] there is a big massive island, which can be done through variations of the stone that is being used, through the curves of the radius or through multiple heights. It can become too monstrous otherwise – even if it is done well.”

Kuryluk adds: “Often, we are seeing bars added to islands for seating so people can sit while the cook is preparing dinner. The island is helping to make the kitchen more social and comfortable. I think the biggest trend is making the island more than just counter space and storage, but a place to hang out.”

Krengel concludes: “It used to be that people [would do whatever it took to get one island into their kitchen]. Now we are seeing two islands – and they are usually two very decent-sized islands, at that!”

Over the Edge

When it comes to countertops and islands, perhaps no other element lends itself to greater customization than edge treatments, Krengel points out.

“People want something that adds an aesthetic detail to the space – especially if we are talking about these larger islands. An interesting edge treatment can break up a really hard line,” she says. “To do an ogee edge or a reverse ogee edge, or a built-up edge, it says to the general public, ‘I have arrived and I have my own little custom edge that nobody else has’.”

Kuryluk notes: “The edges on the countertops I have seen really go to a pencil edge, and the lines have become more clean and streamlined.”

Davis notes: “Popular edge treatments include the pencil edge, the demi-bullnose and the Euro flat-edge profiles.”

“We’re seeing quite a mixture of edge treatments depending on the style of the kitchen,” Moritz offers. “For contemporary designs, we use a lot of square edges, and for traditional designs, a large ogee edge is common.”

Adams adds: “The edge treatments are either going to be really plain or really elaborate.

Safe at Home

Another key to creating functional countertops and islands is the integration of antibacterial and stain-resistant properties.

Moritz explains: “Safety issues are always front of mind when selecting surfaces. We always research the material so that it is safe for the household and easy to maintain. That way, by educating clients about proper maintenance, they can keep it looking beautiful.”

Davis continues: “The same goes for green applications. I’m still teaching clients that stone comes from quarries and it has been that way for thousands of years!”

Adams offers another alternative for designers to consider: “There has always been a thought that a wood countertop was going to absorb grease or chicken or fish. If that is truly the concern of the homeowner, you just tell them not to cut the chicken or meat on the countertop.”

Krengel adds: “People are so consumed by the ‘green’ approach, but I think if people select good quality materials, the chances that they’re going to have to redo that surface in the next 10 or 15 years are slimmer than if they go with a trendy choice they may end up changing out in [less time].”

Prized Projects

For many designers, knowing the attributes of a great island has led to some unique and memorable projects – whether it be integrating fiber optic lighting or creating a huge and dramatic focal point.

“We just finished a major Habersham kitchen in Denver. There was a 10' island and a second Habersham woodtop island,” Adams recalls. “It looked like Old World furniture. That is probably the most expensive and beautiful thing I was ever involved in doing!”

Kuryluk shares two projects his firm recently completed. “One island was really large – I believe 17'x6' – and we had to do it in two pieces just because of access to the site. The seam treatment was in the middle and this was a big focal point of the entire house. The kitchen was on one wall and the island became a focal point, with seating on one side for about eight. On the other side was a sink, but they chose to make it more of a prep area.” He adds that his design team integrated three inlay cutting boards right next to the sink so multiple people can chop and scrape waste into the disposer.

Krengel continues: “We did a butcher block island that features a stone inlay. It is very symmetrically shaped and features some full-height backsplashes in the stones, which add a lot of textile feel to the space.

Moritz concludes: “I think the main challenge is getting your clients to think outside the box and have fun with different surfaces in their kitchens. It is hard for some clients to visualize different surfaces and thickness throughout the space, but the ones who do are usually pleased with the outcome!”