Counter Clockwise

Counter Clockwise

Mix-and-match materials, subtle earth tones, honed granites, solid surfaces and metallic- or wood-look laminates are now among the hottest trends for countertops, with the lines between traditional and contemporary styles beginning to blur.

This year's overriding trend in countertops is well, there really isn't one. Rather, subtle changes are taking place, bringing design towards looks that are more eclectic and harder to define.

"The looks are starting to blend more," believes Alison DeMartino, spokesperson for Wilsonart International, in Temple, TX. "Most of the kitchens we're seeing are very sophisticated, but they're not following a distinct traditional or contemporary trend you'll find traditional cabinetry with stainless steel accents."

The overriding influence of stainless steel in kitchen design continues to predominate; for instance, Ray Kuehn, president, KUEHN Bevel Inc., in Randolph, NJ, cites "simple, contemporary," shiny metallic edging with contrasting countertop material as a growing trend. And the use of granite as an alternative to solid surface and laminates is so prevalent, it's no longer a trend, but just a fact of life, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Multiple materials
Consumers who can't decide which countertop material they want are increasingly using them all, utilizing different materials to define kitchen work spaces and/or give their kitchen a more high-end look than they can actually afford.

"Don't use one material from ceiling to floor," advises Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development for DuPont Corian, in Wilmington, DE, noting that solid surface combined with "stainless steel, granite, wood, using all those materials that's what contributes to the richness of the new minimalism."

Frequently, "They'll use granite on the center island and another product, solid surface or laminate, on the counter," notes Jim Janochoski, national product manager for Cold Spring Granite, in Cold Spring, MN. "We're also seeing [granite] on the backsplash." He adds that a granite countertop mixed with a ceramic tile backsplash is an innovative, popular new look.
"There's a lot more mixing," agrees DeMartino. "The island is solid surface or granite, but the work surface is laminate."

Solid surface is often the material of choice around the sink area, offering the easy care of an integrated countertop and sink. "It's a lot more forgiving, easier to maintain, it's more homeowner friendly, non-porous," says Andrew Ballard, product manager for Hi-MACS, LG Decorative Surfaces, in Tampa, FL.

Ballard adds, however, that particulate patterns aren't particularly recommended for the integrated look: "The sinks are primarily white or almond. People are more adventurous in the tops than sinks. Just from a manufacturing standpoint, if you've got something like a grey granite, to match the sink, we'd put a solid grey or a white sink under that. Nobody has had much success [with] medium or large particulate patterns in a sink just because of the process of manufacturing the sinks."

Ebnesajjad adds that more subtle, tone-on-tone particulates are a strong trend today: "You want a visual texture there, but the difference is, that texture is no longer black and white, high contrast," she notes.

With both solid surface and laminate, the trend is away from making the material completely duplicate a natural material, she adds. "Humans are always connected to nature, so the key is to make that emotional connection with natural material, but not mimic it," adds Ebnesajjad.

"We're seeing a significant trend towards larger, multi-colored patterns that may emulate something natural without actually being a blatant knock-off of a natural stone," agrees Wayne Gordon, director of design for the Auburn, ME-based Pionite Decorative Surfaces. He cites a slate-type design, with a colors ranging from light warm greens to purple hues, and predicts that more natural texture-inspired materials, such as fibers and sandstone, will move into the residential market.

"We let the laminate speak for itself," adds Terrie Buch, CMG, manager of product design for Nevamar, in Odenton, MD, "not mimic Mother Nature, but [instead] try to make something out of this product that has beauty in and of itself." She cites Nevamar's Sidewalk pattern, which invokes a cutting-edge trend cement countertops. "It's seems very comfortable and familiar, a flat laminate that gives you the impression of texture," she elaborates. 
Ebnesajjad also believes cement to be an important countertop trend of the future (as do dealers surveyed, see related story, Page 66). "I'm watching that; it's going to come into focus," she notes.

Similarly, the newly popular metallic laminates don't exactly imitate stainless steel "there's a softening of color, [with] a pearlescent finish, which layers the design, makes it less edgy, gives it more of a residential appeal," says Buch.

Laminates that resemble etched metals are also a growing market. Buch adds that metallic laminates are more appropriate for backsplashes and appliance fronts: "Metallic laminates can't be used on horizontal surfaces they're not impact resistant enough," she believes.

For those looking for a laminate that exactly copies nature, wood looks are on the rise, perhaps inspired by the very realistic-looking, new wood-look kitchen flooring. "You'll still have some designers tell you, 'I don't use laminate, I only use natural material,'" admits Buch. "But the technology in the last three years in laminate wood grain has become so much more sophisticated and refined," she insists, "designers are [reconsidering] laminate wood grains. You can use protected species, exotics."

Gordon adds that imitation green marble is still a huge seller in the lower- to middle-income market, noting that baby boomers seem more accepting of man-made materials, while Generation X homeowners are more likely to demand natural materials.

With new technology, laminate can literally be anything a consumer could possibly want. "The desire for custom laminate is really strong; the problem is getting to the right price point," says Buch. "You can create anything you want, it's just a matter of, can you afford to do it?"

Granite, solid surface
Once the province of high-end designers, the granite countertop is now a kitchen staple nation-wide. "Many of the laminate and solid surface manufacturers are adding real granite to their lines," notes Jim Janochoski. "They've been battling it so many years, but now they're going with the real thing."

Other manufacturers warn, however, that with granite's increasing popularity, care must be taken to select a quality granite; lower-priced ones can be more porous than higher-end slabs.
At one point, just having granite was a trend in itself. Now the aim is to have a granite that's different looking from the neighbors'. "It seems like the earth tones the one we call mahogany is the hottest thing going," says Janochoski. "It's a small grain, a little bluish in the background. It's very plain-looking, but the color seems to work so well with the cabinetry [designers] are using."

Overall, the newest granite looks are a case of less is more. Flashy, veined slabs have been replaced by more subtle particulate patterns; Janochoski also notes a strong trend towards a honed finish: "It takes the polish off," he explains. "It's a matte, non-reflective finish. The polish maybe looks too glittery. We're calling it a velvet look."

"Granite is going to remain granite in the marketplace, but I think solid surface has its own niche," says Jim Mintzer, Surell business manager with the Cincinnati, OH-based Formica Corp., who notes that clean-lined neutrals, especially white and black, are popular picks along with the classic particulate patterns.

Kuehn also sees a strong market in contrasting solid surface edges: "It's not being sold to match any one particular thing, it's [presented] as a decorative solid surface edge, for beauty and durability."

DeMartino sees a rise in particulate solid surface, but not patterns that directly imitate granite. "It's not an imitation of real stone, it's an interpretation." The consensus among manufacturers, it seems, is that consumers who want real stone will get real stone, that man-made materials must find their own strengths and beauty.

"People think, 'Even if I can't afford it, I don't want something that looks like a copy of something,'" says DeMartino. Instead, consumers are increasingly looking for a pattern "that has a natural inference, but isn't found in nature it's manipulated by a computer or an artist's brush." KBDN

Cement countertops are a much more rapidly growing market than manufacturers are realizing, according to the dealers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, who cite cement as the hottest trend, along with stainless steel and the ever-present granite and solid surfacing. But dealers warn that cement is a higher-maintenance surface than many consumers think, similar to natural marble.

"It looks great in the pictures in magazines," notes Danean Mitchell, president and design specialist for Kitchen & Bath Resource Studio, in St. Louis, MO, however, Mitchell believes staining is a potential problem, even with yearly re-waxing, and she notes that finding a good fabricator is a must.

She reports that her clients prefer a natural stone look "with grey and taupe tones" with no particulate additions. "They want a natural feeling."

And her stainless steel countertop clients request both shiny and etched surfaces with a wide variety of edge patterns, she adds. With granite, a new look involves mixing glossy and honed granite in the same kitchen.  "The bulk of what we do is solid surface and stone. [We do] very little laminate," says Trish Burgess, president of Kitchen & Bath Concepts of St. Simons Inc., in St. Simons Island, GA. 

She cites the Corian color Savannah as her clients' most popular pick these days. "It's 
white and bone and cream all mixed together and it goes with everything." Burgess also notes 
a return to white-on-white kitchens, with white cabinetry and white Corian. "They're not getting a contrasting countertop, which surprises me."

When it comes to granites, "no two are alike," with the consumer looking for a unique slab instead of following a trend, according to Burgess.

Burgess' market also doesn't get many requests for stainless steel (along with steel appliances, she notes, it might "be too much of one particular material.")

Kimberly Noyes, CKD, of International Kitchens, in Bellevue, WA, claims granite is the "overwhelming choice" in her market, though cement and limestone are up-and-comers. Dark granites are more popular, with less veining and more of an even pattern. 

"Solid surfacing is also still used; I don't think that will ever go away," she adds, with fine particulates in neutral colors the predominant choice. Edging remains a fairly utilitarian affair, with some customers opting for no edging at all on their granite.

And while Noyes reports no fabricator problems, Burgess echoes Mitchell's concerns: "Sometimes fabricators don't follow the guidelines established by the solid surface industry, so you get callbacks it's not material failure, it's fabricator failure."

Daina Darzin