A View from the Top

Whether it’s solid surface, laminate, natural stone, quartz, metal or something completely different, today’s countertops have one thing in common: Their owners want them to be unique.

Anyone who has visited the selection center at a local kitchen and bath showroom can confirm that more colors and patterns are available in more solid surfaces than ever before. Designers and clients are reaching out to fabricators, challenging them to move beyond innovative edging and unusual insets to create a truly personalized countertop that can act as a focal point for a design.

Customizable designs are hot, as are materials uncommon to the marketplace. Likewise, traditional surfaces that are re-imagined to suit the eclectic tastes of today’s consumers continue to make a splash.

Design does not completely trump practicality, however, and a surface’s ability resistance to staining and chipping certainly play into its desirability. Indeed, this is considered by many to be a key factor in the rise of quartz and other sturdy synthetic materials that do not need sealing, that are non-porous, or that are able to be treated with impervious seals to make them lower maintenance in nature.

Equally popular are such design extras as custom routed drain boards, cutaways to give access to garbage cans and custom racks for knives, signaling a desire for functionality as well as style.

This month, KBDN highlights some of the newest countertop innovations from the best and brightest in the fabrication world.

The Versatile Countertop
When Dan Snider, chairman of the board of Pierce Laminated Products in Rockford, IL, and his wife decided to update their own kitchen, every possible change was on the table. Following a growing trend, the Sniders had decided to integrate their kitchen and family room into one expanded entertainment center.

“We wanted a contemporary design with soft, rounded edging as opposed to dramatic angular configurations,” says Snider. “We selected DuPont’s Corian solid surface because of the immensity of the countertop and our desire to have a clean, sleek look, uninterrupted by seams.”

Practicality was also a consideration and flush-mount sinks were installed for easy clean-up after use. The design was ambitious, including back-to-back sinks, an eating peninsula able to accommodate five people, a functional knife rack and drainboard.

Snider says the size of the countertop, not its design or workability, was the only possible hurdle to clear. The countertop, which spans the length of the kitchen, has 21 feet of deck seams and 44 lineal feet of two-inch sculptured edge, highlighted by a contrasting white pinstripe. “It had to be brought into the kitchen in three pieces and seamed on-site but, with Corian, that’s no problem,” explains Snider.

Customization, Snider says, is the biggest draw for solid surface designers and fabricators. “It really affords the opportunity to very easily customize a design for each customer. Inconspicuous seams, decorative inlays, elegant pinstriping, routed drain boards, a variety of flush mount sinks – the options are endless.”

Elements taken into consideration when designing countertops are being rethought to meet the evolving design possibilities of laminates. “Flush- mount sinks that were once available only in solid surface are now available with a laminate top with Karran sinks,” says Snider. And the evolution of elements designed to work integrally with laminates and solid surfaces is evident in Snider’s own custom Corian countertop.

“Natural stone, when chipped, leaves an unsightly flaw and can be dangerously sharp,” comments Snider. The durability of a solid surface – with its ability to be repaired, resurfaced and re-sanded – makes it a sturdy choice. “Solid surfaces allow you to ‘fix’ what would be irreparable on a laminate, stone, concrete or wood surface,” he adds.

Including Corian, Pierce Laminated Products, founded in 1958, works with solid surfaces such as Avonite and Mystera, as well as laminates such as Wilsonart’s High Definition series, the River Wash series by Formica and Arborite’s Breccia series of surfaces. Snider, with the company since 1964, says: “The atmosphere around fabrication has certainly changed, but Pierce has opted to stay with the custom design/build ‘we can do it’ type attitude, which keeps our day-to-day jobs challenging and keeps our creative juices flowing.”

The Prehistoric Countertop
“In our business, granite is king,” says D. Ralph Katz, president of Manalapan, NJ-based Timberline Design. Katz has been in the fabrication business for 25 years and at the time he began, “about 95% of my kitchens were utilizing laminates for countertops. Sometimes we’d get a request for Corian, but only the higher-end customers were requesting granites or natural stones,” he comments.

The trend turned, he says, around 15 years ago, when clients began to budget for granite and it eventually grew to be the important design staple it is today. And today, he notes, people are increasingly inquiring about unusual stone surfaces, as well. “Quartz is coming on strong, and we’re getting requests for extremely unusual materials,” he notes.

To meet this demand for something different, he began working with a product by Green River Stone. Harvested by hand from Green River Stone’s quarry in a fossil lake in the Rocky Mountains, the stone contains fish and plant fossils from the Eocene Epoch, making them approximately 50 million years old. Each piece is, therefore, unique, with a color palette that varies from chocolate brown to blue-gray.

Katz believes this to be one of the most unique and personalized surfaces available, a good choice for those seeking a natural stone, but who are tired of the look of conventional granite surfaces.

“The striations of the sediment can be seen in the edging, and the variation of nature’s palette can be seen from one end of the quarry to the other, so a real color range is possible,” he says. “Every mural, slab or tile comes with a certificate of authenticity so the clients know that their piece is unique, valuable and real.”

In a recent project in Rumson, NJ, Katz’s crew installed Green River Stone to replace an existing bar top. The client had requested a unique material, something with a certain amount of wow.

“It was a big project to do as one piece, the surface being close to 10 feet long,” comments Katz. “The quarry crew had to search for the perfect slab that was also large enough. The size, coupled with the logistics of shipping the prepared piece from the quarry to the East Coast, made this a challenge.”

Timberline also installed the fossil stone as part of a whole kitchen remodel in Point Pleasant, NJ. Collaborating with Royal Cabinetry Company, the countertop was made the focal point of the room.

“Rather than go for the ‘wow’ factor, the clients picked the fossil stone for more of an ‘earthy’ reason – they were in search of a natural, earth-toned material to draw the eye,” he explains.

Fossil stone was also installed into the backsplash.

The choices of solid surfaces have grown exponentially since he began his career, says Katz, but “dollar for dollar, you can’t compare Green River Stone to other solid surfaces because it’s nature’s own artwork.”

The See-Through Countertop
Countertops that are going to provide the focal point for the room must have a serious “wow factor,” according to Doris Rocklin, director of sales for Montreal, Quebec, Canada-based ThinkGlass. And according to Rocklin, glass countertops definitely fit the bill.

“Apart from the benefit of its natural beauty, there are an unlimited number of colors we can embed into glass, textures and patterns we can create,” explains Rocklin.

In her time with ThinkGlass, Rocklin has noted that the trends have challenged the fabricator’s ability to achieve a complexity of design in terms of size and shape.

She adds, “The trends in countertops have been running toward highly customized, extremely unique creations, such as oversized pieces, surfaces with multiple cut-outs and extravagant shapes and designs.”

As part of a recent whole-kitchen remodel in Encino, CA, ThinkGlass sought to accommodate a client who desired a unique countertop that would be the focal point of the kitchen. The parameters indicated the surface must have a modern look and that it must be able to work with natural and artificial light.

“Glass is really the only translucent material that actually works with the room’s light for effect, instead of just absorbing or reflecting it,” says Rocklin.

The client also desired a durable and hygienic material, as she is an avid cook. Rocklin cites glass’ low maintenance as a major bonus here and says, because it is fully non-porous, it is a hygienic countertop surface.

“The piece’s size and weight of 1,000 lbs. made the fabrication and installation tricky, as well as the necessity of two sink cut-outs, but the overall effect was dramatic,” notes Rocklin.

In another recent project, the client wanted to use glass in every possible application as part of her kitchen remodel, including cabinet inserts, countertops and backsplashes. The island was specifically designed to be the focal point of the kitchen.
“That countertop really shows the versatility of colors we can embed in the glass,” says Rocklin. “We created a signed masterpiece in the center of the kitchen.”

ThinkGlass specializes in 1.5"-thick pure glass countertops with organic patterns unique to each piece, not cast in a standardized mold. The firm offers a selection of embedded textures, and art that is customizable.

Additionally, ThinkGlass can fabricate a variety of custom shapes to fit sinks and appliances, and has the ability to produce single seamless pieces in the range of 10'x7', which are suitable for both indoor and outdoor applications.

Its versatility and durability aside, the real draw of glass, Rocklin says, is the design: “Imagine being able to work on a piece of art,” she concludes.

Bicycle-Chain Countertop
Cement is the ultimate versatile material for designers, according to Rune Borgir, founder of Bead, OR-based Cement Elegance.

“Designers can be very creative with shapes without incurring excessive extra cost, as well as be able to specify totally one-of-a-kind appearances, with effects such as trowel burnish shading,” explains Borgir. “It is also easier to match custom colors with cement than with other surfaces.”

Structurally, cement does not have to be broken by seams or joints, so it is easier to have a pour-in-place job of a size that cannot be accommodated by either marble or granite, according to Borgir.

“The trend with cement is that we have the ability to compete with or beat other solid surface fabricators on turnaround time from templating to installation, with an average of five to seven days,” he states.

Cement has changed in recent history – “monumental changes,” cites Borgir. “The influx of specially engineered and polymer-modified cements have, among other things, sped up our turnaround time immensely, given our product weight of about 8 lbs. per square foot for 1.5"-thick countertop, and allowed us the use of non-breathable or impervious finishes not usable on traditional concrete due to breathability requirements.”

When cement first started to appear in the kitchen, concerns about staining were often an issue. To counter this, Cement Elegance offers a warranty on the products it offers: “We’ve been standing behind a stain-free warranty for more than six years and have yet to find a stain that cannot be removed from our finish – all without damage.”

As part of a whole-house remodel in Bend, OR, Cement Elegance provided cement products for fireplace hearths, multiple vanities, backsplashes, tub decks and countertops. The client worked with a local designer who brought in Borgir’s crew to fully realize the client’s wish for a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque nature-inspired décor. Kitchen specialist Siri Evju, CKD, CBD created the kitchen to suit that idea, and the Cement Elegance team took it from that point.

“The design process was continually evolving,” reports Borgir, “adding elements such as leaf-prints in the master bath backsplash.” He adds that the detail in the edge of the sink was done to match.

Borgir goes on to note cement’s versatility on-the-fly: The edge detail on the bicycle-chain-shaped island was scaled back at the last minute. “We simplified it to a square edge, after it was determined that the shape of the piece itself was enough to make a statement, without the quarter-pipe edge detail we had originally made it with.”

Cement Elegance specializes in unusual shapes to fit any design. Says Borgir: “Our firm thrives on new challenges.”

The Geometric Countertop
Although Lumicor is known for its custom architectural panels, the company had never done a countertop until the owner decided a Lumicor countertop would be an interesting addition to the firm’s corporate kitchen and lunchroom of its Renton, WA headquarters.

This countertop became something of a learning tool for the firm’s designers and fabricators, according to Mike Barton, applications engineering manager for Lumicor. “From cutting the hole for the sink and seaming the sections to finishing the edges and installing the backsplash, it was a great tool for learning the ‘dos and don’ts’ of this kind of installation.”
The staff of Lumicor was able to make use of its trial-and-error experimentation and create a fabrication and installation guide for contractors and builders.

“The design intent of this application was to create a semi-industrial look to tie in with the appliances and lunchroom accessories, yet still create a casual atmosphere,” he adds.

That industrial look was accomplished by blending two Lumicor décors: Honeycomb, from its Metallic family and Bluestone Sheer Moiré from its Textile: Colorways family.

“The countertop has become a focal point and showpiece for office tours, and the owner is proud to show it as one of Lumicor’s great accomplishments,” Barton adds.

Barton believes the inherently customizable nature of the material makes it an interesting choice for the kitchen, especially for those who are intrigued by the trendy industrial look, which has gained a stronger following in recent years.
Lumicor offers guidance to designers and can produce custom lab samples and 3D renderings to show a designer how the countertop will look with the rest of the project.

“There is an emerging interest in utilizing translucent countertops, which become even more interesting when backlit. The second trend is a transition from standard rectangular or L-shaped countertops toward more custom shapes,” says Barton.
For those whose interest runs to green design, Lumicor offers some recycled-content countertops as well, along with a line of colored, crushed, post-consumer/post-industrial glass products.