Counter Impressions

Is there such a thing as the perfect countertop material? While many countertop materials are perfectly suited for specific applications, not all surfaces are perfect for all clients' kitchens. It's important to look at the pros and cons of each in order to match up the right material with the right project.

For instance, there are materials that are beautiful, but high maintenance. Some materials are economical, but not as durable as certain clients might need. Others are tough enough to withstand nuclear attack, but less than exciting when it comes to design possibilities. And still others are altogether fabulous, but expensive.

Is it any wonder that many designers and consumers still favor a mix-and-match approach, utilizing one material for a showy island, another for the hard-working prep area, still another in less-strenuously-used counter space?

This has been the state of countertops for a while – and while the trend continues, engineered stone has been one of those materials making a home for itself in the kitchen.

"People are excited about quartz," declares Gina Covell, spokesperson for Cosentino USA (makers of Silestone), in Stafford, TX. "We're the fastest-growing category of surfacing in North America."

Manufacturers of other countertop materials are working hard to generate a buzz, as well, by introducing innovations and improvements to their products, according to manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Engineered Stone
As everyone but those marooned on a desert island the past five years knows, natural granite has long been the upscale material of choice. Now, however, some industry experts believe the granite era is waning, for several reasons. From a design standpoint, granite has become so very popular in the mainstream market that – much like satin nickel hardware – it has lost its exclusive vibe, prompting high-end consumers to search for alternatives.

Maintenance issues also dictate glossy, rather than honed, granite for most households (and even glossy granite can stain, as many designers have discovered after dealing with irate clients). But, in a design climate that increasingly favors serenity and uncluttered minimalism, high-gloss granite almost seems too glitzy.

Enter engineered stone, which mirrors real granite in terms of look and feel, but with far fewer maintenance issues. From designers' standpoint, it has added appeal in that it is available in a rapidly growing variety of looks and finishes, including low-maintenance honed versions. "We're seeing more demand [for honed surfaces] in the last six months," notes Bob Paradiso, v.p./sales and marketing for CaesarStone, in Sun Valley, CA. "[Honed surfaces] do require a little more maintenance [in terms of] keeping the countertop clean, [but] it doesn't stain or scratch any easier [than polished quartz surface]," he states.

"The quartz surfaces category is the hottest thing going on in [countertops] today," agrees Ginguei Ebnesajjad, DuPont manager product styling & development, Wilmington, DE. "Consumers are coming to understand the benefits of a design surface that has the high-end look and feel of granite, but does not have the drawbacks of sealing and maintenance."

The increasingly popular look of limestone is also now available in a quartz surface, adds Paradiso. "Natural limestone looks good when you first put it in," he adds, "but after that, it [leaves something to] be desired. We have four [surfaces] that give the appearance of limestone, but performance wise, they're much, much better." The new surfaces come in both a honed and polished finish, and are available in currently hot lighter limestone colors such as champagne, cream and sand.

This summer, Silestone will introduce a less shiny textured finish that has the look of leather. In terms of colors, Covell reports that natural granite colors such as dark brown, black, beige, gold and white are top sellers for Silestone, though there are occasional requests for their adventure picks (which include cobalt blue as well as red with mirror chips). Another innovation from the company – antimicrobial countertop material – is also being introduced this year, tying into the growing interest in products that promote safety, well being and healthier living.­­­­

Fancy edge treatments are another way of customizing a quartz countertop, Paradiso notes, citing "triple pencil" and "waterfall" edges. "[Consumers are asking], ‘how do I make my countertop unique?' " he explains. He adds that, it used to be at CaesarStone, only 20% of orders had intricate edge treatments, whereas now it's the majority.

Plastic and Proud
The potential of synthetic materials is practically unlimited, with myriad possible looks. "Our internal rallying cry is, ‘we're plastic and proud,' " says Terrie O'Dell, senior design manager for Nevamar Co., in Hampton, SC. "Nature is wonderful and beautiful and we all appreciate it, but it is what it is. When you're working with a laminate or [other] synthetic, it can be anything you want," she adds.

"Solid surface can be adapted to meet virtually any design theme," insists Dale Mandell, national sales manager for Samsung Chemical USA, Staron Division. Besides its ability to be thermoformed into almost any shape, solid surface can also remain low-maintenance with a completely matte surface, making its solid, neutral colors a natural for minimalist contemporary.

"Dropping in" a solid surface countertop and adding a real wood edge also makes it workable for vintage and antique styles, says Mandell. "Corian, because of its design flexibility, is an ideal material for distressed looks and styles because you can achieve many finishes, colors, shapes and styles," echoes Ebnesajjad, who adds that the material is increasingly being used in other applications besides countertops.

So, with all of this potential for innovation and cool design, why are imitation granite laminates and solid surface materials still among the biggest sellers in America?

"That [trend of] ‘be a real material, don't try to be something you're not' works for the A&D community. But, for the residential market, what's selling is replication of nature [for consumers who] don't want to spend $60 a linear foot vs. $18 for laminate," admits Renee Hytry, senior v.p./global design, Formica Corp., in Cincinnati, OH.

She believes the trend towards natural, or natural-esque, vs. proudly synthetic, seems to alternate by decades: the '50s/'60s went for "space age" materials and Mod plastics; the '60s/'70s introduced back-to-nature hippie style and avocado refrigerators, among other things. The '80s were awash with conspicuous consumption glitz, along with a lot of mauve. The '90s went natural again, and "I was hoping that the consumer base in North America would free up at the end of the decade and say, ‘ha, we made it [to the new millennium], now we can try new things,' " Hytry explains. She adds that, in the European market, adventure picks such as frosted glass countertops are prevalent. But the events of the early 2000s had just the opposite effect, and "coccooning" American families seem to be sticking with a natural look.

"Countertop choices in the U.S. will continue to reflect materials that lend warmth and character," confirms Ebnesajjad. "The warm neutrals that evoke an emotional connection to elements of nature will continue to be an important choice."

O'Dell sees a developing middle ground. "We will [soon introduce] more abstracted stones," she reveals. "We're not trying to rip off Mother Nature; we'll scan in a granite and then develop from that – give it a twist."

On the solid surface front, Staron's "Breccia" line also gives a particulate look a new spin, with a mosaic of dark and translucent particulates blended in a neutral base. "Our research shows that consumers' preference has evolved from high-contrast granites to an aesthetic that is tone-on-tone texture and complex colors," confirms Ebnesajjad. "Natural-neutral colors provide a canvas from which to balance our over-stimulated lives."

"The big story in color doesn't necessarily have to do with a revolution in color trends. It has to do with how the colors are used together," emphasizes O'Dell. "It's about mixing [established] colors together to create a completely fresh look; throw out the color rules, [use] whatever looks right to your eye. We're seeing the same thing happening with materials – a juxtaposition of unusual materials, anything goes."

She notes that, for laminates, mixing sheens so you have a matte finish mixed with a gloss, or a pearlescent finish with a texture, to create special effects is a fresh new approach.

Ebnesajjad adds that coordinating colors of Zodiaq and Corian are available for just this purpose.­

Retro Laminate
The expanding niche market of Modern Retro bodes well for synthetics, those surveyed agree. Hytry explains that available housing stock may play a big part. In the '80s and '90s, consumers who were buying older homes to restore were buying Victorians. "Therefore, they wanted historical materials," leading to the surge in, for instance, pedestal lavs and clawfoot tubs in the bath. These days, however, "All of those houses have been remodeled or are too expensive for the younger urban group," says Hytry. "Instead, they're buying houses from the '50s and '60s and celebrating them, accepting them for what they are."

For this group, the "builder formula" of granite/maple/stainless is the stuff in their parents' house.­ "They're more open to experimenting, and not relying on natural materials," notes Hytry. To that effect, Formica is re-introducing its classic "Boomerang" laminate from the 1950s in coral, light blue, aqua and grey.

The Formica Classics Collection also includes several retro European designs such as Virrvarr, "which looks like a bunch of crossed lines, graphic, criss-crossing wildly. That was a classic in Europe, so we're bringing that back as well," explains Hytry.

"Fifties modern, sixties mod, larger scale patterns, are really coming back," confirms O'Dell. "I just came back from Miami, and we were looking at a lot of textiles and fabrics from the '50s and '60s that could influence countertops. The younger [homeowners] are really excited about a different type of look. Retro is new to them."

Adventurous Picks
For high-end clientele who insist on cutting-edge design, granite is already becoming something of a cliché. For those who are willing to put up with strenuous maintenance (or rather, insist their cleaning person do so), concrete countertops have proven an elegant and imaginative choice. The always custom and pricey tops afford a nearly limitless capacity for one-of-a-kind design with embedded objects, integral color and aggregates, as well as a wide variety of textures and edge treatments.

Concrete can resemble the crumbling terra cotta of a Tuscany farmhouse, the minimalist, glossy galley of a space station, or the serene water's edge of a sandy beach, complete with seashells.­However, maintenance issues have prevented the material from translating to sales in the real world (see related story, Page 126).
Many designers have turned to concrete-like quartz surface such as CaesarStone's honed grey Concrete.­ Similarly, Ebnesajjad promises the K/BIS debut of new Zodiaq colors and textures "with a matte finish [and] a linear, edgy subtlety that fuse the versatility and aesthetic appeal of concrete with the strength, durability and performance of a DuPont surface."

While some fabricators insist their natural concrete tops are thoroughly stain-resistant, they've also employed massive amounts of epoxy which, purists feel, ruins the look of the concrete.

So it's no wonder the folks at Sonoma Cast Stone, Petaluma, CA, are pleased with their new, proprietary technology NuCrete concrete – which, reports president Steve Rosenblatt, has a natural look but is­ "perfectly stain free. It took us over a year and a half to develop [the technology]," recalls Rosenblatt.

"I bet we've tried almost 100 combinations. We had 36 water fountains that poured lemon juice, cooking oils, cleaning detergents, red wine and vinegar, tomato juice; we poured those over [NuCrete] tiles for 46 days, 24 hours a day." Even with that level of abuse, the tiles didn't stain, Rosenblatt insists.­NuCrete is around 20% more expensive than regular concrete, and it does tend to darken colors a little, he notes. It is still possible to add aggregate and otherwise customize a top, he reports.­ Waxing is no longer a requirement for the user, though continuing to do so does add luster to a top.

For consumers who want real concrete on a budget, conventionally- fabricated, large precast concrete tiles are also available. Notes Rosenblatt, "They're pre-made in four colors, are available for immediate shipment, and their price for a concrete countertop is about the same as [solid surface]."

Going Vertical
The backsplash seems to be a place where everyone is willing to be somewhat more adventurous. For instance, Sonoma Cast Stone has introduced concrete-and-stainless steel tiles. Silestone offers pre-cut mesh tiles which enable one to create a custom look on the backsplash, adds Covell. For an adventurous but easy-to-clean and integral backsplash, Corian Bas Relief collection provides 3D patterns for a striking, unusual look. For a metallic look, Formica's Authentix line can work on a backsplash – but, unlike many metallic laminates, can also be used on horizontal surfaces.

Overall, the backsplash is the one spot where lower-cost laminates are being used in upscale builds because of their innovative looks.

"We're seeing more and more laminate being used in vertical applications and cabinetry, wainscotting," says O'Dell. While such imaginative use is still largely in the commercial end, she believes that savvy residential designers and homeowners often take design cues from commercial design, so she predicts these looks will find their way into homes in the not-too-distant future.

"We see so many exciting things being done in hospitality design," she concludes. "Consumers are out there looking at those materials, and they're going to be adapting some of those things in their environment – the eye needs to be delighted."­­ KBDN