Concrete Enhances Traditional and Contemporary Designs

Concrete in kitchens and baths may still be considered relatively contemporary by the standard homeowner. However, while concrete can be used to create a modern look, it's also perfectly adaptable to a more traditional setting - where it got its original start in interior applications such as fireplaces and floors, and in exterior applications such as columns, capitals, balustrades and other Neo-Classical fa├žade details.

And today we're witnessing what I feel is a "renaissance of creativity in concrete." Tools are now available to designers that were once the prerogative of the specialists. With these tools and a little attention to detail, concrete - that infinitely pliable material - can take on any look you care to give it. Acid washes, stamping tools, poly-urethane molding material, diamond pads, soft-cut blades, diamond floor polishers, rapid-set concretes, water reducers - all have made the task not only easy, but fun.

Thus, since concrete in design can lean in either direction, the key to creating a timeless kitchen or bath design involving concrete is largely dependent on your ability as a designer to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary elements.


To be fair, there are no standard guidelines that, if followed, will guarantee you'll get a certain look. But whether it's contemporary or traditional, all "styles" are really just an amalgamation of details that evoke a certain feeling when used together.

For example, combine a stone hearth, shuttered windows and dried herbs hanging from the kitchen ceiling and you might think of a home in Provence, France, even though each of these elements also shows up in plenty of other styles. Pair glass cabinets with white porcelain fixtures and you might think you're in a San Francisco, CA Victorian home. Or, take away ornamentation all together, and you might end up with something in more of a Shaker style.

Thinking of style as an assortment of possibilities rather than as a prescription or recipe is actually quite freeing, and it's suddenly much easier to understand how concrete might fit in just about anywhere in a kitchen or bath design.


Concrete can also act as a substitute for more traditional materials. Rather than just using concrete to explicitly re-create something from the past, you can also combine it with other elements to suggest a timeless quality. In my work at Cheng Design, I always strive to strike a balance between innovation and emotion, between spare contemporary and warm traditional.

Try adding mosaic tile along the front edge of a concrete surface, inlaying bits of tile along a backsplash, or even embedding a fossil in a countertop. These types of touches all connect us to the past, and give a design more traditional roots.

Now, when making kitchen countertops, you must work with the style of the kitchen, and, most times, that means you are working in a traditional setting - witness the 90% of U.S. kitchens that feature some form of traditional or quasi-traditional design.

If you wish to incorporate crafting counters into your business, it's crucial to have an understanding of traditional styles and their origins. Looking at styles means more than simply grabbing a particular detail and force-feeding it into a new setting.

Indeed, you must remember that the style we associate with a particular era evolved from the function, art, craft and technology of that time. They were appropriate for their time. But, for instance, I've seen, where Corinthian columns were plastered to the end panel of an island cabinet simply to evoke the idea of classical design. There was no use or function for them except to convince us that it was a traditional kitchen. This is a type of design I call "Wedding Cake" or "Costume" design. It's a kind of design that is the opposite of "timeless," for it serves as only a nostalgic reference to the past. It does not link it to the past, nor is it grounded to the past.


So how does a conscientious craftsperson, designer or fabricator overcome the timeless and traditional contradiction?

It takes a sense of design, as well as a sense of balance and restraint. I've designed a few kitchens that are traditional, or, more precisely, that convey a feeling of traditional style. Yet, a closer look will reveal that if just a few materials were changed - concrete counters instead of tile counters, for instance - and the treatment of the cabinet doors simplified - say, flat panels of natural bamboo instead of raised panels - a kitchen's style could easily morph into contemporary.

Indeed, a design's bones (i.e., layout) are what can make a kitchen work practically and aesthetically across all styles, or fit into one. For instance, a California cottage we renovated recently moved from traditional to transitional. A large concrete curved wall/counter boldly separates the living room from the kitchen, while a stainless steel, integral sink countertop straddles one wall. All signs seem to indicate contemporary, yet, by inlaying glass tiles into the backsplash and inserting a traditional plate holder in the cabinetry, enough balance is achieved to avoid a conflict of styles.

Now let's take a turn-of-the-19th-century, Craftsman-style kitchen as another, more hypothetical example of balancing modern with traditional. The cabinets would most likely be frame-and-panel with flush-inlay doorframes. There would be wood wainscoting in the dining area, and maybe tile around one porcelain sink. The lighting fixtures might have beveled glass, or echoes of Tiffany lamps. What concrete application would be appropriate in this situation? I would look into one or more of the following ideas in combination:

  1. Choose an earth tone color or natural gray - no bright colors.
  2. Keep the front face, or thickness, of the countertop at a minimum of 2-1/2" up to 5".
  3. Try insetting "panels" into the front face of the countertop to reflect the cabinet doors. These panels would be no deeper than 3/8", and would measure approximately 1/3" to the height of the front face.
  4. Recess the appropriately sized or proportioned ceramic tiles that feature some embossing into the face of the countertop, or into a cast backsplash. Allow the recess to be at least 1/4" in depth.
  5. Install mosaic tiles in groups of four separated by 1/8" to 1/4" spacing on the countertop surface to act as inlaid "trivets" next to the range or cooktop burners.
  6. Line the drain board into the sink with tile or marble.

In this case I wouldn't want to use all of the above accents - just enough to carry a complementary flavor to the Craftsman look and feel. The concrete itself is earthy enough to carry that load.

It's up to you as a designer to add the touch that personalizes and enhances the piece. In some cases, even the overwrought traditional English manor kitchen, usually full of elaborate detailing, can use a touch of restraint - a concrete counter with a simple ogee edge detail and a complementary white porcelain farm sink might just be perfect. The key, again, is balance.

Indeed, the bottom line is that no matter what the style of the kitchen or bath is, striking a balance of elaborate and minimal elements - such as installing creatively cast concrete with just the right amount of detail - can help bring a design into the future or link it to the past, Or, in the best-case scenario, bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary design for a truly timeless look.

In the end, it's really all in the details.