Topsy Turvy

Whether your client prefers a streamlined, high-gloss, ultra-contemporary look, or longs for the warmth of wood and all things traditional, when it comes to countertop and island designs, one thing is clear: Anything is possible when creativity – and customization – come into play.

These are the sentiments of Ken Pascal, principal of True North Cabinets and SMC Stone, LLC in New Canaan, CT, who explains: “People are demanding more from their kitchens and want them to meet their tastes and needs. And countertops are certainly not exempt from this trend.”
The good news is that creative countertop options now come at virtually every price point. Not only do material choices abound, but mix-and-match options allow designers to include high-end materials even in kitchens with a less-than-high-end budget.

And, as Joseph Ricardi, v.p. of North Oxford, MA-based Royal Countertops and Kitchen Cabinets relays, more choices mean more trends – and more opportunity for personalization. “In our showroom we offer a wide variety of island and countertop treatments,” he says. “When people come in, they see the different [options] and they want to do something with that. They want to have their project stand out,” he adds.

“People are less willing to settle for cookie-cutter solutions. These increased demands present an opportunity for resourceful designers to come up with unique solutions,” adds Pascal.

Patricia Floyd, principal for Minneapolis, MN-based P.F. and Associates Interior Design, Inc. cites the growing popularity of islands for both functional and design reasons. She offers: “Islands [are] replacing what used to be the ‘dining room’ or table in the kitchen [while adding design appeal].”

Anna Marie Fanelli, owner and designer for Tenafly, NJ-based Floor & Décor Studio adds: “There is also a trend toward using unusual pieces to make exciting countertops. I think European minimalism will be a strong influence both in color and texture for countertops [in the years to come].”

Ricardi points out: “The trend is that islands are turning into pieces of furniture,” and, not surprisingly, this means they are being topped with materials that match this upscale, furniture look.

Mark T. White, CKD, president and chief designer for Annapolis, MD-based Kitchen Encounters, believes that “contemporary styling is [growing in popularity],” and sees this being reflected in countertop and island top choices.

But regardless of the style, Ricardi believes, “Designers need to remember that [choosing the right material for a countertop or island] depends on the needs of the customer, and the [overall] look of the house.”


Even as contemporary styles grow in popularity, many island and countertop designs today still continue to show “all things wood,” according to White.
As a result, “Integrating wood countertops as part of an island or accent piece, and features like knife blocks, cutting boards and stainless steel sink aprons, are showing favor,” says Pascal.

“Another thing we are doing specifically with wood tops is using a much thicker countertop than your standard 1-1/4". For a wood top, we’ll run at 2-1/4" and sometimes even thicker,” White points out.

He adds: “Something to remember with contemporary islands is that people are looking for a more open look. There are islands that have steel or aluminum frames, where the cabinetry sets up on legs and is left open below, so it really looks like something was carried in and placed on the floor.” As a result, materials topping these islands may need to have a lighter, or less weighty, feel to them.


Natural materials often serve as a powerful aesthetic complement to kitchens wrought with stainless steel. Additionally, they can serve as an environmental touchstone. And, many designers have come to believe that if one natural material is good, shouldn’t two or three or even four be even better?

“The use of two or three different countertop materials is definitely popular,” says Pascal. “People [want] natural materials from a variety of sources, as well as sustainable and low-impact materials.”

Fanelli agrees: “Green design will definitely have an impact in both the kitchen and the bath. As a result, countertops will need to become more eco-friendly.”
Pascal adds that popular materials include granite, marble and limestone and other natural stones. Other surface materials in demand right now include stainless steel, engineered stone, lava stone and concrete, he says.

“Our clients want items that are soft in appearance and natural, hence the increased desire to hone granite countertops for a matte finish,” adds Mary Kathryn Calonje, kitchen and bath designer for Atlanta, GA-based Design Galleria Kitchen & Bath Studio. “Since many homeowners want to mix materials, wood is an excellent choice [to mix with natural stone].”

“Mixing materials is key when designing countertops, since texture is the heartbeat of tile design,” adds Fanelli. “By using sheet mosaics of stone, glass or metal, one can have a cost-effective countertop while having lots of movement, color and interest.”

“It has been the trend for some time to mix various materials,” adds Floyd.

Linda Janhunan, designer for Exeter, NH-based B&G Cabinet, LLP, agrees: “Some of the standard colors and textures are no longer desirable, so people are looking ‘outside the box’ for patterns and colors that no one else has seen.”

“Many times these materials are used in one area of the kitchen and natural stone in the other. Mixing surface materials is very popular and adds another dimension to a design,” Pascal says.


Countertops also can act as a canvas on which the designer can express the client’s individual preferences, while islands offer the opportunity to sculpt and mold a functional piece of art into the space. To that end, White cites a project that allowed him to use free-form expression to capture the lifestyle of a modern American family.

He explains: “The challenges were somewhat unique [because] we were adding on family rooms to the back of the home, but had to go through the kitchen. The island was critical in creating good traffic flow that would bypass the kitchen, yet still maintain a good work arrangement with all of the necessary features.”

Although White considered using both straight and angular island solutions, it was the free-form shape that most appealed to his clients. Therefore, he created a curved island that increased the amount of workspace on the inside of the kitchen and also helped direct the flow of traffic.

“The main island work space was topped by Silestone countertops, which accented the blue accents on the cabinetry,” he explains.

The sink was located in the island with the dishwasher, while the cabinets were set in a kind of curved pattern to complement the curved flow, he adds.

He continues: “At one end of the island that was closest to the dining room, we actually elevated a section so that we could have the microwave – which was also the speed cooker – at a comfortable height without creating a visual barrier to the adjacent room. On back of that raised section, we put a free-form curved teak countertop.”

At the other end of the island, White installed an end grain teak countertop, which was designed for food prep on the work side of the kitchen. Behind that, he added a long run of a teak countertop that served as a breakfast bar, complete with ample seating.

“This project is a good example of what I see as upcoming trends: contemporary style and the mixing of heights and materials to add interest,” he concludes.


For Ricardi, countertop and island design is a game of inches. Indeed, this was never more evident than when he was asked to create a one-of-a-kind, traditional-style kitchen complete with cherry cabinets and an S-shaped island.

He offers: “The customers had an L-shaped kitchen, and they wanted to turn a corner with their cabinets – and wanted the same effect with the island – which created an S-shaped kitchen [with] an S-shaped island.”

Ricardi notes that the previous island had no seating availability, so creating an area that accommodated multiple guests was imperative.

“Due to the unique shape of the layout, I wanted to make it so that the customer had ease of maintenance and a long-lasting prep area,” he explains. “They also didn’t want anything that had any seams in it.”

For this reason, Cambria quartz material was selected for the island to provide a clean, seamless and easy-maintenance solution. Ricardi notes that this choice made good sense from a functional standpoint as well as a design one, since the island also features a cooktop, so a heat-resistant and scratch-resistant surface in the area was a must.

He concludes: “Once we had Cambria selected, and once I knew there would be no seams, I knew she would be happy.”


Of course islands also can be used to evoke a specific feeling and style. In fact, when Ken Pascal was asked to create a kitchen with a truly timeless feel – without sacrificing function – he knew the design would center around the island.

Of course other elements of the kichen impacted the island choice and placement, too. “The layout was difficult because the hood needed to be centered on the long wall opposite the entrance into the kitchen, which was offset to align with a fireplace in the adjacent family room.”

To that end, the island needed to be reshaped to provide balance between the entrance door and the center of the hood on the opposite wall.

“The countertop of the island was then sculpted to alleviate the blockish shape of the cabinets below and add a fanciful touch to what could have become an austere design,” he describes.

He continues: “Although a contrasting countertop color was considered for the island, in the end, matching [Madura Gold] granite unified the space and prevented the lyptus wood island from dominating the room.”

Indeed, the lyptus island offers a coffee stain finish that anchors the room and complements the tones in the “plantation-style” cherry floor, he notes.
But, the island offers other unique benefits as well.

“The lyptus wood used on the island is a hybrid hardwood that has a natural red color, similar to mahogany, but that is much more ecologically friendly due to its sustainable nature,” he says. This helps create a natural, ecologically friendly space that ties the design together.


Islands can also be used to help create a design theme. For instance, when Janhunan wanted to create a kitchen her clients would never want to leave, she decided to use the theme of a vacation getaway. Janhunan, along with B&G Cabinet, LLP co-owners Jim Goulet and John Butruccio, kept this in mind when designing an elegant suburban kitchen, in which the island played a key role.

Janhunan explains: “The room had unusual angles that presented some challenges in terms of creating a design that was balanced and symmetrical.” So, it became imperative to use the island to add visual stability.

Additionally, there was a limited amount of wall space for all of the appliances, so the island and backsplash were the only locations left to accommodate other design elements. That made the surface choices for these even more important.

“The window in the background was a strong image, so the island needed presence [as well],” she says.

Contrasting materials on the island and backsplash add visual drama, and also provide a design solution. She explains: “Due to the angles in the kitchen, we were left with a space behind the range that was not equal in width from left to right. So we had to ‘trick the eye’ with a focal point.”

To achieve this, the design team chose a backsplash from the firm Picture This on Granite, which according to Janhunan, “blends perfectly with the Black Beauty granite, while the image draws the eye to the center of the space above the cooktop – instead of the unequal spaces.” The result? A countertop and backsplash combination that not only provides a design solution to a tough challenge, but also one that drives the design.


Seams can be an issue when choosing a countertop or island top. In a project recently designed by Calonje, the client’s desire to incorporate structural columns made this a challenge.

“In order to surround the columns completely, we had to install the top in three pieces. This could have resulted in numerous seams,” she notes. “So, in order to mask the seams we chose the butcher-block style of construction [and chose Craft-Art countertops to make the joints flush and to eliminate the seams].”This created a warm look, capped by rub-through exposing the woodgrain.

“The rub-through is only slight, so the cabinet remains elegant and not overly distressed,” she says.

She concludes: “This kitchen has a relaxed formality and the island has the warmth of a butcher block countertop, yet it’s not distressed, and has a more formal edge treatment.”


Asked to renovate the kitchen in an upscale New Jersey condo, Fanelli knew that the island would not only be a focal point, but a key selling point, too.

“In the next few months there would be a renter in this location, so I felt comfortable using Caesarstone Sierra 9255 [a nice, neutral color] with an ogee edge [to give it some visual pizazz],” she points out.

By doing so, Fanelli – along with fabricator Globe Marble & Granite Imports in Carlstadt, NJ – was able to create the look the client desired, while also having a “safer” color palette to entice renters.

But whether clients prefer splashy color or a more subtle, neutral elegance with an eye-catching edge treatment, one thing is clear – countertop and island choices are playing an ever-growing role in today’s kitchens.