The Stone Age

While reverting to the Stone Age may not sound like a smart idea for kitchen and bath designers, it does have its perks – especially when creating unique countertop and island applications.

So says Douglas Miller, owner and designer for New York, NY-based Fossil Interior, who explains: "I am seeing a move toward a more neutral, organic coloration. Beige and limestone are perfect for what I am seeing as contemporary trends, and I think that people have developed a unique appreciation of stone."

As a result, other materials, such as solid surface, laminate and engineered stone are emulating the natural look of stone – and creating a slew of new design options.

Kenneth Brown, a Los Angeles, CA-based interior designer and host of HGTV's reDesign, adds: "Countertop design is so much about personalization because of the large availability of design products to the masses."

Lori Jo Krengel, CKD, CBD, for St. Paul, MN-based Kitchens by Krengel, agrees: "In terms of countertop materials, there is a general demand from the high-end sector to have something unique – something that the average consumer would not want, or [could] not afford. This is why we have seen a demand for the honed, brushed and flamed finishes on granite."

"Design themes that attract the eye and make a statement are certainly being explored, such as inlays, colors and metallics that allow designers the full range of expression," adds Graham Pohl, principal for Lexington, KY-based Pohl Rosa Pohl.

Miller, whose company designs freshwater limestone slabs imbedded with fossils, agrees: "People don't want the same thing as their neighbors. In the case of the fossil stone, there are several ways to make that unique; you can use very old, large fossil contents, you can use lots of small fossils or light and dark stones."

He continues: "What we see is the stone having a very organic sense to it, but, at the same, time feeling very contemporary. You can take something that looks like it just came out of the ground and use it in a contemporary setting."

To that end, Brown notes that products such as lava stone are growing in popularity "because people love the punch of color [as well as the fact] that it has a back story to it."

He adds that there is also a product called Syndecrete, which is a solid surfacing material (a pre-cast lightweight concrete material), that serves as an alternative to limited or nonrenewable natural materials, such as wood and stone.

In addition, manufacturers are now capable of creating any color for concrete that may be requested, which Brown believes will further open up design options.

"If you want to match the concrete to your china pattern, and that color is a peach cobbler, it can be customized to that color, to your specifications," he says.

"People are willing to take the risk of staining to create a more subtle, lighter tone and softer look than the shiny marble. That is why I think we are seeing the demand for the honed finishes on granite," Krengel continues

Brown adds: "It's why we moved into doing soapstone, and honing the black granite. [It creates] a different look."

"There is also a lot of mixing of materials within the same kitchen, such as acrylic, granite and stainless steel," offers Kate Heyhoe, executive editor for Wimberley, TX-based Global Gourmet.

Mary Kathryn Calonje, ASID, NKBA, of Atlanta, GA-based Design Galleria, agrees, citing a recent project she finished that combines wood and stone.

"The client wanted the island to be inviting and, in her words, say 'come into my kitchen,'" she says. "All of the [distressed Black Walnut] countertops are very natural and neutral, and on the perimeter, the limestone tops blend beautifully as another natural element."

She continues: "The thickness of the wood countertop balances perfectly with the heavily molded cabinet doors and overall large scale of the cabinetry elements."

Brown notes that he also equates the island to a built-in piece of furniture that helps define a space and allows people to have fun with their design.

"Consumers want to know if you can set a hot pot down on it, can spill red wine on it, or whether you can cut directly on it without marking it up," he says. "So, the question is: 'How do I create a great look and give it an interesting edge?'"

Krengel responds: "The 'wow' factor of any project is in the details. Discover what truly moves your client, and you will have a successful project."

Prehistoric Style

One of Miller's recent projects – which was designed specifically for a gourmet chef – serves as an example of the growing popularity of natural and organic design themes, he notes.

As he describes, the 6'x9' island top features a variety of small fossils called knightia, as well as a very large, prepared, three-dimensional fish called the diplomystus, found in the center.

He explains: "What was significant about this project was the client was selecting tile and stone interior coloration to match the island top. We tried to use our large stone as a hinge point to how he was going to design the other interior elements."

He continues: "We used tumbled travertine, and chose beige colors, because he wanted a light feel to it."

He adds that the island top was also cut to a slightly irregular shape to accommodate seating for guests on one side.

"It is a place where all of his guests can sit and watch him prepare food while they run their hands across this prehistoric fossil table top," he says.

Another project Miller is currently working on also fits this trend well. "The customer custom-built a home that has a square exterior and round interior. The island is a five-foot round circle, and features our stone in a honed finish," he explains.

However, the unusual island shape poses a unique challenge, he says. "[With any project,] we don't have a choice as to where the fossils go – it is more of an editing process. [Our job] is to incorporate the fossils in an interesting way," he offers.

"That said, we have maybe 400 slabs in inventory, so we will selectively find a piece of stone, put a template over it that matches his circle, put a template for where his sink cutout will be, and decide if the fossils surrounding this make an interesting composition," he continues.

"If you have a very large area with a work surface in one location and a decorative area in another, you can prepare the fossils in the decorative area in relief. That way, you are not as concerned with a solid work surface as you are with making something very beautiful," he concludes.

Block Island

According to Brown, islands offer a wealth of opportunities – whether through color stains, cabinet styles or countertops – to personalize any kitchen.

Brown cites two projects he recently completed as prime examples. "With the first, we were trying to capture a Mid-Century Modern feel. We wanted something that was sleek and cool, and we wanted the same appeal for the countertops. For the island we went with a CaesarStone called 'Oyster,' to capture the look of Terrazzo," he notes.

But, Brown faced challenges, as well – namely, the sheer size of the island.

"Since it was a really large island, we had to work with the seam," he offers. "But we were able to overcome it by working around the cooktop and creating a nice division."

The second project, which features a more eclectic look, also reflects the need for personalization among clients, Brown says.

"The homeowners didn't want it to feel modern or country. They wanted it to look authentic to who they were," he says.

To that end, Brown chose concrete countertops and set them with cabinets circa 1975, to create a vintage look.

He continues: "The backsplash was also unique in that we found a lot of glass tiles that were mismatched. We installed those one by one, because they had their own individualized patterns."

Brown concludes: "In the past, I've done classic white countertops with the white cabinets and the very shiny chrome fixtures, [but] we are also willing to try something more dramatic, such as black cabinets with a teak-oiled countertop. It may call for a little more maintenance, but if the client gets sick of it, changing an island is a lot easier than ripping out the cabinets or countertops."

Personal Design

As Heyhoe notes, aesthetics are certainly key to any countertop application, but it also needs to function well.

Therefore, she cites her own kitchen – which she designed – as an example of practicality at work.

"The original kitchen was a tiny, narrow, galley style kitchen, and it literally would have fit in a boat!' she jokes. "I needed a space that was practical yet stylish, with lots of room, yet not so delicate that it wouldn't be functional.

"I also wanted countertops that could withstand intense use, and I needed a lot of countertop space," she continues.

But, she adds, there was also the issues of finding a suitable fabricator (her home was based in the countryside) and simply deciding on the right counter material.

"I wanted a contemporary feel, but one with warmth. So, instead of neutral countertops, I needed a bolder color to stand out against the natural wood cabinetry," she points out.

According to Heyhoe, the focal point of the kitchen is the large dual-level peninsula – which she also designed.

"I knew that it would dominate the kitchen, so picking the right countertop color was critical," she emphasizes.

Therefore, Heyhoe chose Swanstone's Tahiti Evergreen to blend with the seamless integrated sink, which featured the same color and material.

"The peninsula has two levels – one at standard counter height of 36", and the other at standard bar height of 43"," she describes.

"Our contractor built a wooden ponywall in back of the cabinets to support the raised bar countertop," Heyhoe continues. The peninsula functions more efficiently now, and has more surface area than a straight extension. It is also more visually and spatially elegant."

The peninsula's lower countertop features a 28" depth, as well, which creates considerably more workspace, she adds.

But, there is another aspect of the peninsula that stands out to Heyhoe, ironically – by not standing out at all.

"One of the most practical features I designed for my kitchen was the open area under the counter," she says. "I can perch there comfortably on a stool, facing guests at the bar-height countertop, while still prepping and chopping vegetables. For me, this vacant area is the best use of space I've ever experienced in a kitchen, and it allows the cook to take a load off her feet while cooking!"

Back to Front

As Krengel notes, backsplashes are also receiving unique treatments.

"Metals, metals and more metals are the definite trend in backsplashes," she says. "People are really willing to punch up the backsplash with metal," she says.

Brown agrees: "Metallics are huge and hot right now, and I have seen metal liners and metal decos interspersed with stone materials to mix it up."

Krengel notes that she is also seeing glass tiles, as well as clear tiles, embossed tiles and custom colors used on the backsplash.

"We are also seeing everything from full-height stainless steel to metal decos in pewter, copper, gold tones, and even some with real stones in them for the high-end consumer," she further notes.

Heyhoe agrees: "One of the major trends in backsplashes is the full-height splash that covers the entire wall up to the cabinets."

She continues: "If it's an affordable option, consider installing wider backsplashes to help protect the walls."

Brown notes that designers should also be wary of how certain products work together, such as whether the glass thickness from one manufacturer is going to work with the size of a ceramic metal deco, for example.

Krengel concludes: "Backsplashes are the perfect tie, cuff links, earrings to the always appropriate suit or little black dress (countertop). A fun or daring backsplash treatment can more easily be changed out than an entire kitchen, for instance. And, better yet, it creates a whole new look for the client!"

Looking Ahead

So, if countertop and island applications are featuring so many natural materials, where can designers expect to see designs head in the future?

"A new trend could be to fabricate a totally seamless stone countertop with integral sink," says Krengel. "So far, no one has been able to replicate either the look of stone with the beauty of the seamlessness or a stone that is seamless," says Krengel.

She continues: "So, right now there is still a demand for each product group based on the desire of the homeowner. I believe the company that can figure this out will have hit the next big trend."

Brown agrees: "The drive toward personalization is going to cause manufacturers to look into offering more options with countertops. I think we will see more design in the countertop, whether it's a mosaic, a simple lining or a combination of metals with a man-made solid surface to create a simple linear design."

"The ability to design with natural, mixed materials and colors will continue now that people can see the possibilities," adds Pohl.

Heyhoe offers: "The upcoming trend for kitchen countertops will still be influenced by real granite. However, I also see man-made products becoming more like granite in look and color, but retaining the features of solid surface products."

With such emphasis on personalized applications, laminates may soon see a bigger call as well, Krengel points out.

"I can picture people continuing to seek a more custom-looking countertop application. That may very well come from laminate. After all, the metals, textures, edges, backsplash applications and the horizontal and vertical applications that it offers gives it the flexibility [needed] to produce custom applications," she concludes.

U.S. Countertop Shipments Seen Growing through 2009

New York - The growing popularity of solid surface and stone, coupled with the introduction of engineered stone and granite-looking laminates, has helped fuel steady growth in U.S. countertop shipments over the past decade.

And that growth, reinforced by a strong housing and kitchen and bath market, is forecast to continue through at least 2009, according to a report released by Catalina Research, a research firm that specializes in construction materials, building equipment and related industries.

The report details not only the past and projected growth of the U.S. countertop market, but also points to significant shifts in market share between plastic laminate, the traditional market leader, and a wide range of newer materials that have entered the market.

The total value of U.S. countertop shipments reached some $3 billion last year, increasing at a 13.5% compound annual from an estimated $1.3 billion in 1997, according to Catalina Research.

While plastic laminate retains the largest market share, and continues to post year-to-year dollar gains, the countertop market's growth has been strongest in the solid surface and stone countertop sectors, the research firm points out. For example, while shipments of stone countertops rose 25.3% annually between 1997 and 2004, and solid surface material shipments increased 13.4% annually over that same period, plastic laminate countertop shipments gained only 8.5% a year, Catalina Research notes.

Laminate – hampered by weakening price increases in recent years – currently accounts for about 45% of U.S. countertop shipments, which is down from 62% in 1997, the researchers point out.

Currently, solid surface accounts for some 21% of the countertop market, but growth rates are forecast to increase at only an 8.7% compound annual rate over the next four years, due in large part to the rising competition from stone and engineered stone, Catalina Research says.

Counter shipments are forecast to increase at a 10.2% compound annual rate between 2004 and 2009, rising to some $4.9 billion. Stone – currently at about 34% of the countertop market, but forecast to rise 15.8% annually – is projected to become the most widely used countertop material on a dollar basis by 2009, representing 43.3% of the total market, the research firm concludes.

Quarriers Note Rising Interest in Marble for Kitchen Countertops

Carrara, Italy - Once thought to be only for baths, marble is now making more headway in the kitchen, as well as other parts of the home.

That's according to marble quarriers and importers/exporters at the 26th annual Carrara Marmotec international fair for marble, machinery and services, held this year June 1 to 4.

Quarriers, importers and exporters of marble and other natural stone have been witnessing a rise in interest for marble in the home, especially for kitchen countertops, and particularly in the U.S. They said as long as they are properly sealed and cared for, marble tops in the kitchen offer an alternative to the ever-popular granite and other types of natural stone.

They also mentioned that marble can be found in a variety of colors and veining that go beyond the typical white Carrara marble, native to the city where the fair is held.

Marble, they further noted, has also long been used for outdoor projects, such as cladding on buildings, and sculpture. The Carrara Marmotec fair recognizes this fact annually with an awards ceremony whose geographical focus rotates each year.

This year the Marble Architec-tural Awards held on June 3 honored several architects and architectural firms for their exterior, and interior, work featuring marble – as well as other natural stone – in East Asia.

American architectural firm Pei Partnership Architects LLP took top prize in the Interior Design category for the Bank of China Head Office in Pechino/Beijing.

DP Architects Pte. Ltd. of Singapore and U.K.'s Michael Wilford & Partners scored an honorable mention in the category for the Esplanade/Theatres on the Bay in Singapore.

Yoshinori Chidori of Nihon Sekkei Inc. and Kengo Kuma of Kengo Kuma and Associates, both in Japan, won in the External Facings category for Japan's Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum.

Honorable mention in the category went to Nihon Sekkei Inc. and U.S.-based Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC for the Nihonbashi 1 – Chome Building in Tokyo. Wang Lu of the School of Architecture, Tsinghua University Beijing in China also received an honorable mention for the Tiantai Museum in Tiantai-Zhejiang, China.

In the Urban Landscape category, there was a tie for first place. Junzo Munemoto/Raumu Associates of Japan won for the Museo Vangi/The Sculpture Garden Museum in Nagaizumi-Cho, Shizuoka, Japan. Kazuto Kuetani of Japan also won for the Hill of Hope in Hiroshima.