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.
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."
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]."