Counter Intelligence

When it comes to fabricating countertops that enhance an overall kitchen and bath design, many kitchen and bath designers are finding it to be a seamless experience.

In fact, according to designers and fabricators interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, many countertops that are currently being fabricated and installed are highlighting a “less is more” approach, often eschewing the tiny details, such as seams, in order to capture their “dream theme.”

But, that’s not to say that clients aren’t still clamoring for personalized touches.

Indeed, multiple inlays and edge profiling are still key components to a truly eye-catching countertop, as is the combining of multiple materials such as solid surface, concrete, glass and wood.

To add a bit of texture to countertop projects – and spice up an overall kitchen or bath design – designers and fabricators might also look toward multiple color-seam kits, or stained concrete, for instance.

But, most importantly, kitchen and bath design professionals are finding that in order to truly “wow” their clients, the end result needs to combine style and substance.

As a result, notes Jane Skeeter, CEO of Chatsworth, CA-based Ultraglas, Inc., today’s trends also include a call for scratch-, heat- and stain-resistant materials.

Curtis Turner, v.p. of Catoosa, OK-based Hudson Surfaces, adds that designers should be prepared to start seeing these types of trends in the bath as well.

“With kitchens evolving through the mixing of various countertop materials in the same space, the bath vanity tops will see a movement away from cultured marble in the coming years,” he predicts. “Solid surface and 2cm granite will likely gain much of the surface area for vanity tops. At some point the bath will follow the kitchen trend and begin mixing more surface and finish products.”

Skeeter already sees this happening, noting that glass is not only growing in popularity, but opening up almost limitless options in terms of fashion and function.

On this and the following pages, Kitchen & Bath Design News looks at recent projects that offer a glimpse of some of the hottest trends in the world of countertop fabrication.

Twice as Nice
Asked to create a kitchen island design that would complement the addition of nearly double the square footage in this kitchen remodel, designer Roger Shollmier and fabricator Greg Strange knew exactly what to do: Make it twice as nice.

The homeowners wanted a large kitchen that would function as both a kitchen proper and family room, with a wall of windows for natural light.

To accommodate this, Shollmier, owner of Tulsa, OK-based Kitchen Ideas, strove to create a sophisticated kitchen, with separate food prep areas and room for everyone to gather – even during food preparation.

Shollmier suggested an oversized island that would provide space for family members and friends to gather, without interfering with the food preparation areas.

Turner, who worked with this design team, explains: “The homeowners selected Mystera solid surface for the island and one countertop – but they did not want a seam in the center of the island top.”

Therefore, both Shollmier and Strange, along with Turner, built the island top around a 4'-wide by 10'-long sheet of Mystera Sierra, with an inlay of Mystera’s Ash as well as another inlay of Sierra. Complementing this look is a border of Mystera Ash with an edge profile.

To fill out the space, the island was drawn to 6'6" wide and 10'6" long, with an additional 2' for a wood prep surface at the end of the island.

The sheer size of the island presented various challenges for the team, Turner points out.

“Fabricating the massive island top off-site at the fabricator’s shop and getting a proper fit with the multiple inlays was definitely a challenge,” he says. “Seaming the completed island together had to be done quickly before the adhesives set up, requiring three mechanics and two different colored seam kits working simultaneously.”

Strange, owner of Countertop Solutions in Broken Arrow, OK, continues: “Moving and installing the 400 lb. island turned out to be the biggest challenge for the team, both in terms of getting it into the home, and then in setting it [up] with no damage.”

Turner adds: “The final challenge was sanding the island, which required working from both sides of the island during each step of the sanding process.”

He continues: “The wood-cutting surface was raised to break up the large island surface, placing it at a more efficient work height. A ceiling treatment was used over the island to tie it into the vertical space and provide lighting for this focal point.”

Also of significance, Turner believes, is how this design ties into the trend of mixing materials.

“The kitchen countertops use solid surface, concrete and wood in the same room. The concrete surrounding the cooktop is for both the look and functionality, and the solid surface allowed for a design feature that would have been difficult to achieve using other products.”

As Turner points out, the end result is quite dramatic, with the combination of hickory cabinet doors, the stained concrete countertop for the cooktop, Mystera’s Sierra for the countertop with a farmer’s sink facing the wall of the windows, and the oversized island with the wood-cutting surface.

Fabricated Fabric
When Skeeter needs to create an innovative countertop, she simply takes a peek through the looking glass. For Skeeter, glass countertops open up a world of possibilities.

She explains: “Glass countertops can be fabricated like a normal slab, and we can provide holes for sinks and faucets as well as shapes for any template. With glass, there really are no limitations.”

This was the case when Skeeter was asked to create a countertop that stood as a “shimmering jewel” in her client’s powder room, she relays. “We wanted to create drama with a whimsical and pleasant, unexpected treat for the eye,” she says.

Taking a cue from her roots as a dressmaker, Skeeter came up with a unique solution. “Our goal here was to achieve the look of floating fabric, but we still needed the vanity to be safe,” she explains. “We had to figure out how to attach the little glass skirt to the counter in a stable and strong way.”

She continues: “To accomplish this, we made holes in the top of the glass and installed hooks for it to hang on, and also tempered the glass piece for added safety.” Skeeter notes that this project reflects the focus toward texture in countertop applications. “Textures can be added to either the top or bottom of the glass,” she offers. “These trends are coming about as a direct result of the paradigm shift that has occurred. We’re seeing glass being used, not just in tile formats, but also in large sheets as surfacing material. But, we don’t recommend glass for the primary work surface near a range, since it’s not heat-resistant.”

She adds: “It appears that stone has become the norm [for countertop applications], but glass is the ‘unexpected’ material. [The bottom line is] homeowners are seeking truly customized elements in their home, and the countertop is a popular area to add something unique.”

Combo Meal
Beginning work on this kitchen project, Bob and Catherine Wilcke of Battle Creek, IA-based Bob Wilcke Construction had a clear advantage; they knew the clients and the kitchen very well because they were the clients.

Wanting a comfortable space that combined tradition and function, Wilcke began by shortening the island, which he notes provided a comfortable work height for himself and his wife to cook and bake.

To create the complementary aesthetics he was seeking, Wilcke and his wife chose Formica’s “Fallen Leaves” for the countertop and “Dark Chocolate” for the laminate walls and island base.

He notes that there were some challenges. “Since the island was made shorter, we used a different laminate color on it than on the countertops around the perimeter of the room,” he says. The couple chose Formica’s “Sienna Terra” for the island.

He continues: “A solid laminate was also used on opposing walls, behind the range and behind the wine rack, for ease of cleaning and to create visual interest.” He adds that the same solid-colored laminate was used under the island to tie it in with the rest of the kitchen. Citing recent trends in fabrication, Wilcke adds: “Today’s customer wants to be unique, have a rich look, have a functional kitchen and have low maintenance. Customers do research and will demand what they see, rather than rely on the contractor or designer to recommend.”

Specifically, Wilcke cites inlays, metallics and colors as the popular choices for countertop applications, and he predicts, this trend will continue for quite some time.”

“The trend to be unique, innovative and theme-oriented will continue. Any new, classy-looking product, design or technique with moderate to low maintenance will also become increasingly popular.”

Long Distance Call
One might think that when Evan Kruger, COO of Portsmouth, VA-based Eos Surfaces, Inc. was asked to create a countertop for an episode of “Weekend Makeover,” his main concern would be the vast audience inspecting his work. But that was the least of his worries.

“The greatest challenge was measuring the job in Florida, building it in Maryland and then installing it in Florida,” he jokingly states.

He adds, however, that it was also critical that the angular design feature a cohesive feel.

“The cabinet selection is a dark, rich wood with olive tones and the doors and trim are bold, which added a lot of texture. With these strong features, the countertops needed strength of their own to stand out.”

Therefore, the design team chose Eos Surfaces’ “Portland” color to capture the look they were after. “Portland has the depth, tone and beauty, with a matrix of tone-on-tone color elements that give it a natural look,” he explains. “But, the most unique aspect of Eos is the full 3cm thickness and how a bold edge profile was applied to complement the door styles and trim of the cabinetry.”

He continues: “Since Eos can be seamed together with invisible joints, the long continuous sections of the counters look like one flowing piece, even around the hammered copper sink.”

And having a seamless area – and an easy-to-maintain and hygienic countertop – were not only key to this project, but evocative of recent counter trends, Kruger notes.

“There are no sealers involved [with Eos], so this counter won’t absorb spills that might stain granite or marble.”

He adds: “Around cooktops, 1/2" traditional solid surface needs to be doubled in thickness to prevent heat-related cracks, but these countertops have heat-resistant strength due to their thickness. This same thickness allows Eos to be fabricated with woodworking tools and granite fabricating tools and CNC machines.”

Kruger concludes by predicting that this consolidation and centralization of countertop fabrication materials will increase in the future.

Friendly Environment
Asked to create a design that would offer a stark contrast of materials while still retaining an environmentally friendly atmosphere, project manager Kamal Persaud and general manager Vish Prashad of Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based Global Spectrum, Inc. knew that they were up for the task.

“We are the exclusive distributor for DURAT in Canada – a material that is compromised of 50% recycled plastic and is completely recyclable,” says Prashad.

He continues: “We also have extensive experience in stainless steel fabrication. We consider stainless steel to be the most environmentally responsible fabrication metal.”

But, despite having the needed materials, the pair found that they were pressed for time – a situation that actually improved the fabrication process.

“We contemplated bringing in a fabricator from the DURAT facility in Finland, however, due to scheduling problems we abandoned the idea. Instead, we organized a hands-on learning tour of the plant for two members of our design team. This proved to be invaluable in the actual fabrication process,” he says.

Prashad, who notes that a chocolate brown DURAT countertop was selected, adds: “The end result is a 1"x1" square stainless steel tubular frame to house the maple veneer cabinets. This ensured the required durability while maintaining the bright look [that the clients requested]. The 1" frame also allowed the lighting strips to be hidden and still cast a very effective light on the countertop work area.”

Prashad notes that an unexpected challenge arose as well. “With the ceiling height being a full nine feet tall, we needed to maximize the horizontal perception to maintain spatial balance. To achieve this, we decided on mainly drawers for the lower cupboards, as well as horizontal drawer and door pulls.”

Not only did these products fit keenly into the design, Prashad notes, but the entire design itself fits neatly into current countertop trends. “The noticeable trend in the countertop material is the merging of contrasting materials and features – hence, the cool strength of steel versus the soft, natural feel of wood and the pristine, controlled effect of the solid surface countertop.”

He continues: “The trend toward diversification of materials is always a challenge in developing interfacing methods. There is also a definite move toward environmentally friendly materials as more people become aware of the need to be more responsible toward the ecosystem.”

He concludes that although he has not noticed a call for unusual backsplashes or inlays, he does see more requests for simple, streamlined bullnose applications, as well as heat- and scratch-resistant materials that are easy to maintain.

A Custom Fit
Asked to offer a countertop solution for a client’s country kitchen, Matt Jecker, the creator of SHIRESTONE Custom Countertops, based in Nixa, MO, knew he had the answer. “On a SHIRESTONE installation, the edging forms are applied first, then our mixture is poured in place, on-site, creating a seamless surface.”

He continues: “In this particular project, the client wanted to incorporate a specific farm sink and drop-in range with a natural stone-colored countertop, complemented with decorative slate accents.”

He adds that the top was then custom colored to highlight the design elements of the kitchen, and decorative turn-outs were applied to the bullnose around the sink and range for added detailing.

Jecker believes that consumers are seeking a custom look that is easy to maintain, leading to the growing popularity of natural stone and slate looks, as well as “Old World” and Tuscan themes, he adds.

Jecker also notes that, aside from the kitchen, he was able to carry out several of the client’s custom countertop ideas throughout the bathrooms and laundry room in the home.

Indeed, Jecker notes that he is no stranger to answering the call for a unique look from customers. “As consumers crave unique design features in the kitchen, backsplash applications have become more diverse and creative. But, we can create custom backsplashes and easily inlay creative design elements including tile, slate, shells and metals. We can even inlay stained glass that can be backlit for custom effects.”

Dose of Reality
If personalizing a kitchen is difficult, how much more difficult is it to create a countertop design with a personalized feel – even though the design is being done not for a specific person, but rather for “the typical American consumer?”

That was the challenge facing Chester Layne, general manager of Orlando, FL-based Stone Systems of Orlando, who was asked to create a kitchen countertop design for the “Reality House” showhouse, based in Celebration, FL. The home was introduced in conjunction with the International Builder’s Show (IBS) in Orlando.

Layne offers: “The theme of the Arts and Crafts-style home is the reality of what Americans want, based on a survey done in various geographic areas with families from all budgets.”

Specifically, the 5,394-square-foot home was conceived to detail solutions to storage, daily clutter, work-at-home situations, multiple generations and a balance between private and common spaces, among others.

“Therefore, we installed Silestone in your more traditional areas, such as the kitchen and vanities, but also in the laundry room, desk areas and for the tub surrounds,” he comments.

Layne adds: “Since Silestone comes in many colors and a polished or polished texture, we where able to adapt to each style of every room without disturbing the flow of the design,” he adds.

Layne notes that more than 500 square feet of Silestone was installed in the home, with Silestone product used in some 10 different rooms.

“We decided to use colors of our new River Series,” he explains. “Some of our more traditional colors, such as Kona beige in a polished finish, were used as well, as was our Sonora Gold in a honed or leather finish.”

For Layne, this ties in with the current countertop color trends: “The trend of natural and earth tones continues to grow, and a big reason is that a lot of people remodel their homes with resale value in mind.”

Layne also cites bullnose applications as his firm’s most highly-requested edge application.

He continues: “Many homeowners are choosing to use metallic backsplashes now because those types of countertops are becoming more affordable. Tumbled marble is always a very popular choice among consumers; however, 75 percent of our customers continue the countertop flow and purchase Silestone backsplashes.”

With regard to upcoming trends, Layne concludes: “Solid surface will be the new laminate, and I think laminate will become a do-it-yourself item.”

Custom Countertop Features on the Rise, Survey Suggests

HENDERSON, NV – Today, as the desire among clients to have personalized spaces continues, people are also searching for new ways – and products – to aid them in this search. It appears that custom countertops are fitting the bill.

Indeed, based on an informal national poll of countertop fabricators conducted by the International Solid Surface Fabricator Association (ISSFA) based here, the demand for custom fabrication features is on the rise with homeowners.

Specifically, the association notes that features such as built-in drainboards, molded-in sinks, seamless backsplashes or decorative designs etched into the countertops are particularly popular.

“We’ve noticed an upward trend for customer interest in integral coved splashes,” says Brad Reamer of WILCOR Solid Surfaces in Elk Grove Village, IL. “They feature an attractive, watertight transition between the back and the countertop, which eliminates gaps or the need for messy caulks.”

He adds: “Many of our customers also ask about granite because they think it’s trendy, [but they will also opt] for solid surface because of the seamless backsplash, which can’t readily be done in granite.”

With regard to materials, ISSFA notes that recent market data indicates the continued popularity of solid surface, which was projected to capture some 16 percent of the residential countertop market in 2005, compared to a projected four percent share for natural stone and three percent for engineered stone.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in custom work,” says Debbie Layton of Mountain Tops Solid Surface Creations in Hayes, NC. “A particularly hot item right now is solid surface in a beadboard style installed as a wall splash behind the countertop.”

In fact – according to those fabricators surveyed – the custom nature of solid surface is a main reason for its increased popularity, with an emerging trend being the increased use of drainboards shaped in a variety of patterns, grooved right into the countertop surface, the association notes.

Further spurring this trend, the survey revealed, is that solid surface fabrication shops are simultaneously becoming more sophisticated, leading to a higher level of craftsmanship and more custom options for clients.

According to Layton, sometimes the fabrication can take on sentimental value for clients, as well.

“We recently did an inlay of a turtle in one corner of the countertop for a lady who lost her husband,” she says. “The turtle was a private symbol of their love, and now has become a daily reminder of their life together. Her countertop has evolved into something of great sentimental value.”

Conversely, fabricators who were polled report that the use of decorative inlays have also come to reflect an expression of regional tastes and attitudes. For instance, Texans might prefer images of deer or cattle; bear paw images may be popular in the Appalachian Mountains and golf courses in Florida.

Also notable is that many fabricators cited a dramatic rise in the popularity of the molded-in sink option, as well as the growing popularity for custom countertop colors.

Using Designer Backsplashes to Add Luxury Appeal to the Kitchen
by Carlo Americo Odella

For design professionals looking to add an eye-catching splash of color and style to the kitchen, the backsplash is often the perfect place to make a powerful design statement.

Floors and countertops get worked on or walked upon, getting dirty or picking up clutter, so it makes sense to focus primarily on function for these. However, having an interesting or innovative design statement on the backsplash will draw attention upward, making the whole room more visually appealing.

A bright, classic or interesting design on a backsplash can also add value to a floor or countertop design, since these now serve as a backdrop for a dramatic focal point. At Europamerican Tile, we almost always recommend that the backsplash selection process and installation take place after the new floor, countertops, cabinets, lighting or paint or other renovation or new construction activity is completed. Designers can then take a range of samples to the client’s home to determine which pattern, color or combination creates the greatest impact.

From our experience, the impact of the color, texture and style of the backsplash tile will be dramatically affected by the color and kind of material used on the countertops and the lighting and wall coverings on the walls of the room – so choosing these first will help maximize results when choosing an effective backsplash.

If the client has granite countertops, there is, in essence, a “plaid” on the flat surface and the designer will have to be very careful about having a complicated design or range of colors that may create a competing “plaid” on the backsplash. If the client has busy or very colorful wallpaper on the walls, there will be a similar “plaid” problem to deal with.

When working with darker colored countertops or cabinets, the designer may need brighter, glossier tile on the backsplash to reflect rather than absorb light. If there are plain or very neutral cabinets and countertops, the designer might want shiny tile or tiles with a range of colors to brighten up a plain look that is too antiseptic and lacking in style.

None of these selection complications can be effectively planned for by just using a showroom display. Rather, the designer must take a range of colors, styles and textures to where the backsplash will be created to make a good decision in the light of the environment that the tile will reside.

When it comes to tile choices for the backplash, designers may use standard decorative tiles that typically are square or rectangular in shape and usually coordinate in size with the field tile. Or, they may choose decorative liners (strips of tile 1/2"x6" to 4"x12"), which frees them from having to worry about the size of the field tile. Another option is stone tile, which can come in a variety of shapes, such as octagons, trapezoids or rectangles. With stone, it’s often less about the color than the visual impact of the shape and texture.

It should be noted that decorative tiles or even decorative liners can have a lot of color and character but still be neutral. If using one color, there then is a blue, green, etc. color statement on the backsplash.

If, on the other hand, the decorative tile or listelli range in color, the backsplash will not be color specific and the range of colors can be utilized as other accent colors are introduced to the kitchen environment. A range of colors will provide a design statement and add some excitement to the backsplash while still remaining neutral and not compromising or limiting the ability to decorate the kitchen.

In our experience, the sizes that work best for backsplashes are 4"x4", 6"x6" and 3"x6". Smaller tiles are generally too busy and require too much grout, while larger tiles look out of scale and, in many instances, create the look of a commercial kitchen – too cold and impersonal for the average homeowner. Most deco tiles come in either 4"x4" or 6"x6" sizes, so if the designer wants to use a non-standard size, the decorating choices become both limited and more expensive.

There is more and more demand for stone, glass and metal tile for use on backsplashes. The stone tile can be both dramatic and colorful, especially when some of the red limestone selections are used. On the other hand, some of the lighter limestone choices are quite neutral and mix well with metal tile or with designs made with different sizes of the same light limestone material.

It’s important to remember that, with any stone material, periodic sealing will be required to keep the tiles from staining. It’s important that clients understand this, so they won’t be disappointed later.

Homeowners who are addicted to wild cooking with Italian or Indian foods might want to stay away from stone unless they are prepared to be very careful with their cooking activities and are prepared to seal the backsplashes often.

Glass tiles are generally used on their own and, as such, become a dramatic backsplash material. They are an excellent choice for a contemporary or modern European kitchen design.

A trick to reduce cost with metal tiles is to use them as accents with ceramic field tile. By mixing a few 4"x4" or 6"x6" metal tile into the field, the whole area will look more upscale but the cost will be moderated in that most of the area will be covered by the ceramic or porcelain tile. When used alone, the metal tiles do allow for a contemporary look at less cost than glass tile.

Both metal and glass tiles, which can be quite elegant, are a great match with the “plaid” created by granite or stone countertops. Designers will clearly want to have a material of substance and elegance to match the investment being made on the stone backsplash.

Carlo Americo Odella is president of the Dayton, OH-based Europamerican Tile, which carries over 1,500 samples and 200 brands of tile. Odella has been in the tile business for almost 20 years, after previous careers as a Fortune 500 Vice President and a CPA with Price Waterhouse & Co. He can be reached by e-mail at europamtile@aol.com, or through his Web site at www.europamericantile.com.

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