Countertop Attractions

Countertop Attractions

Innovative materials like quartz surfacing and glass looks, broad design transformations, and subtle blues and earth tones are now among the trends piloting changes in the countertop market.

By Kevin Winkler

While granite and natural stone remain hot, and granite-look surfaces continue to grow in scope and sophistication, other manufactures are focusing on new materials, with hot trends including quartz surfacing, glass looks and other new materials, from stainless steel to concrete.

The one trend that seems to span all materials, though, is the continuing interest in anything "au naturel." 
"For today, and transitioning from the '90s, consumers are in love with nature and natural materials," notes Renee Hytry, director of design for Formica North America in Cincinnati, OH. "Therefore, the most popular finishes for countertops are based on real materials: limestone, terra cotta, granites and tiles," she explains.

Kimberly Cilio, director of marketing for the Stafford, TX-based Silestone by Cosentino, notes, "Consumers like the look and feel of natural stone and the elegance it adds to their environment. They are looking for kitchen countertops that are resistant to scratching, staining and dulling, and [that are] also virtually maintenance free. They want their countertops to wear well, as this is a big investment in the look and cost of their kitchens." 

"I see more and more market share going to real stone," agrees Wayne Rutledge, director of marketing communications for the Albuquerque, NM-based Avonite. "In general, we're all losing sales to granite," he notes.

That's because the countertop market is "lifestyle-driven," he believes. "It's not about performance at the high end. And it's not about colors, or patterns. It's [about] their belief that granite is the ultimate countertop, that because granite [used to be] so expensive and hard to find, having it is like being a member of an exclusive club. They want to buy what they believe is the most expensive countertop money can buy. They're buying a lifestyle.

"The demographics are shot from what they used to be," he continues. "There are a lot more people who have money at a much younger age, and at the other end, you have 60-year-olds who are doing things [that this generation] wouldn't have done in the past. They're not afraid of something 

To capture the interest of today's lifestyle-driven consumer, he believes it's necessary to develop "products that match today's lifestyle and that's not necessarily a granite look. In some cases, that's a very exotic look, and it may even be more expensive than granite. What they want is something very cool and hip." To this end, he sees creativity as key, and notes that, "We're trying some glass looks, and some other composite looks with other materials that don't look like granite. We want to position Avonite as a company that just makes really wild and cool stuff."

Frequently, the size of a kitchen is a consideration when choosing countertop materials, believes John Scott, v.p. of Swanstone products for The Swan Corporation, in St. Louis, MO. "I think we'll see a continued increase in the use of solid surface and granite material for countertops, especially in larger kitchens with more feet of counter space," he says. Scott also notes, "Solid surface and granites are [becoming] more affordable because there are more and more manufacturers in the business." 

"In solid surfacing, large particulate is definitely the best seller, as is granite," reports Brenda White, a spokesperson for the Temple, TX-based Wilsonart. Ease of maintenance of these products is key, she observes, as "People have busy lifestyles and don't want to do a lot of work on cleaning and taking care of things." She notes that real earth-inspired tones that play on the look of nature are the most popular.

Terrie L. Buch, CMG, product design manager for the Odenton, MD-based Nevamar, explains, "While residential color and design trends for 2000-2001 will not shift dramatically from trends popularized in the late '90s, we are beginning to witness an evolution of change brought about by changing lifestyles. It is evident not only in the colors and materials used but in space planning, function and specifications.

Kitchens more than ever are the epicenter of the home, and the 'trophy' kitchen has become the new dream kitchen, [though it does not] necessarily resemble today's standard kitchen."

"Countertops, cook surfaces, ovens and shelving are getting taller or are adjustable in an effort to respond to consumer demands for ergonomically correct design," Buch reports.

"It is not about one or a few particular color/design trends, it is all about choices," believes Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development for DuPont Corian, in Wilmington, DE. "We continue to see expansion of color range and style diversification in product offerings, and the trend of material mixing will continue to gain strength."

According to Scott, there is a trend toward larger countertops with extra-large island tops in the kitchen. "These island tops are multi-functional, used both as a cooktop surface and food preparation area. Full height backsplashes are also popular," he adds.

Material play
The trend of mixing and matching materials in the kitchen continues to thrive, according to manufacturers, bringing design toward looks that are both more diverse and more personalized.

Notes Scott, "Eclectic mixing of materials, styles and finishes has made its way into kitchen design. It's the juxtaposition of hard-edged, high-tech finishes such as stainless with the soft-edged, natural texture of a stand-alone piece of fine wood furniture that represents a new look for the kitchen. The new rules for kitchen design include the notion that materials can be mixed to create a unique and personal statement.

There is growing interest in tile in all shapes and sizes, paired with either granite, marble, solid surface or laminate. A strong desire for translucent materials is fueling the demand for decorative glass used functionally as backsplashes [or in other applications]."

Scott also sees a marked interest in contrasting solid surfaces. "Consumers are matching solid surface with tile backsplashes and undermount kitchen sinks in stainless steel. Island tops of butcher block or real hardwood are on the rise. There is also a mixture of smooth and rough textures for backsplashes. [Additionally] metal backsplashes, some with embossing, are becoming popular." He notes, when it comes to mixing and matching in the kitchen, most countertops use 
the same material throughout the surface.

Rutledge agrees that a wide diversity of materials adds uniqueness, and cites cement-based products, recycled glass, and quartz-y stones as materials with which Avonite has been "getting some pretty unique looks."

One of the most notable trends in kitchen countertops is the rise in quartz surfacing. "Quartz surfacing is a stone product produced by using a quartz base (93%) and pressurizing with binders to create 'stone' sheets," explains Cilio. "These sheets are then fabricated into kitchen countertops, bath vanities, showers, tile and other surfacing applications," she says, adding that this innovative countertop product is "an economical option for consumers because it costs less than granite and is competitively priced." 

DuPont Corian, originator of solid surface material, recently introduced a Quartz surface as well, says Ebnesajjad. "You don't need a crystal ball to see the future of surfacing, but crystal, the quartz variety, is definitely on the horizon." 

With regard to granite, Jim Janochoski, national product manager for Cold Spring, MN-based Cold Spring Granite, reports that there have been changes in recent years, including increases in the thickness of the stone. Polished finishes are also popular with granite. "The trend has focused on a honed or matte finish that is smooth yet not reflective," he states.

Laminates are borrowing looks from solid surface, moving away from one color in favor of patterned styles. "A lot of things we've introduced are micro texture, which almost appears as a solid from a distance. Up close, however, they are complex patterns," offers White, who adds that "Nature-inspired looks remain strong in laminates, with earth tones, stone and cement styles leading the way. People don't want an exact interpretation of nature, but something that suggests it."

Ebnesajjad notes, "With the increase in mixing of differing materials in kitchens for function, we find that we must coordinate with other new or re-discovered materials such as metal, concrete and various exotic natural stones [not traditional granite] on the countertop." 

Other trends include "heavily textured tone-on-tone looks like Corian Antarctica, Sahara and Savannah," says Ebnesajjad, "because 'texture' has replaced 'color' as the most important design element today. The 'play of subtle textures' is what makes the design statement in many of today's interiors."

Movement is back in style for granite, according to Janochoski. Some of the more popular stones "have gold and black waves that show no particular rhyme or reason," he explains. 

These looks are particularly suited for country kitchen looks, he adds. He advises, "The more active the kitchen, the less active the surface."

Color span
As with material choices, color trends are slowly moving in new directions, evolving to parallel and support kitchen design trends; for instance, Buch cites "color in general is forecast to be softer, cleaner and prettier. Neutrals are most important for residential spaces, particularly for countertop surfaces and appliances." 

She continues, "White reigns supreme, but the freshest whites will be those with a special finish such as pearlescent, and this will be true for most colors as the acceptance of and demand for color with 'layered personality' continues to grow." 

Buch adds, "Uptrending neutrals are complex and 'hue-ful,' with red-based [being the] newest [trend], but the comfort level for warm, yellow-based neutrals will remain strong. Grey is back, but with this color so prominent in the use of stainless steel in kitchens, it is doubtful that it will be used in volume as a full field of color in kitchen countertops. Instead, expect to see it in combination with other colors in patterns where the mix is both warm and cool. 

"Blue is, of course, the growing color story for the next several years. Inspired by water, whether icy and crystallized or tropical, warm and inviting, blue will be the color to watch," Buch notes, adding that "it will be used both as a field of color and in combination with other hues. Blues used in kitchen design will range in value from light to dark.

"Greens continue to be important, especially those with a blue undertone and those that are light, natural and healing," continues Buch. "Teal will make a comeback in 2000 and 2001, but it will have shifted away from green to blue. Peach, which was so popular during the late '80s and early '90s, will reemerge as Terra Cotta at the darker end and almost blush-like and frosted at the lighter end. Bright accents will remain popular, especially for kitchens where it's used as a cheerful counterpoint to a neutral palette," she emphasizes.

Hytry agrees that the trend toward the use of blues in the kitchen is mounting. "There is a rapid rise in blues recently due to the environmental importance of water, the comfort of denim and the color's representation of calming new age spirituality." 

Janochoski affirms that there are several shades of green that are popular right now. However, he notes, "We are seeing a strong need for shades of brown and mahogany [in granite], as well as gold." He adds, hot reds and pinks are fading.

"Whites and neutrals remain by far the most selected countertop color," according to Ebnesajjad, "because appliances are overwhelmingly selected in white and consumers remain conservative in the permanent finish selections of their home. We remain a mobile society and resale value is [also] a consideration."

While some countertop trends thrive, others are on the decline, according to Hytry. "The mauve family from the '80s has completely fallen out of favor in 
all markets and price points," she notes. 

In addition, Hytry notes that the use of square-edge laminate edges is also on the decline, as are cabinet doors in all the same style. 

Retro looks are on the increase, including "clean lines and contemporary styling," offers White.

The consensus among manufacturers, it seems, is that design trends are becoming more diverse and harder to define, while moving away from what has been the accepted standard. This increased diversity in color and materials may also cause increased consumer uncertainty. 

"Consumers continue to expect a wide range of choices in countertops, but are often confused by these choices," says Ebnesajjad. "It's important that everyone [who encounters] the consumer be thoroughly knowledgeable about the products on the market, then find out their customer's true heart's desire, so that they may guide them through the choices to achieve the desired end result." KBDN