Counter Act

Counter Act

Innovative new products and materials are putting a new spin on the countertop market. 

By Daina Manning

With this dizzying array of possibilities, you'd think the countertop market had maxed out on new ideas. Wrong, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Mix and Match
Not only are new products coming onto the market, but consumers are realizing they're not limited to just one choice. More than ever, the mix-and-match approach to countertops is the hot trend.
"Kitchens have become the epicenter of the home. People want trophy kitchens now," says Terrie Buch-O'Dell, senior design manager, board of directors of the Color Marketing Group, Nevamar Decorative Surfaces in Odenton, MD. "Consumers are much more willing to mix materials for more eclectic styling."

For instance, a remodeling customer might choose natural granite or limestone for an attention-getting center island, engineered stone or solid surface for high-traffic areas that require frequent cleaning, and possibly a section of butcher block or stainless steel in a food prep area.

"It's smarter design," notes Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, director of style and color development for DuPont Surfaces in Wilmington, DE. "I have an expectation of how I want to use this space. Therefore, I look at material that fits into what I want to use not only visually, but its function."

In terms of color, "I think people are getting really bored with neutrals and off whites," declares Ebnesajjad. "I see color starting to come back in, and that's being expressed in different ways."
This is not to say that all the consumers who are currently opting for low-key, natural brown and beige shades will suddenly decide they want red instead. "We're not going to see [the advent of color] right away in a permanent material like countertops," Ebnesajjad continues. "But, you're going to see a little bit more color in a natural [look] material."

She cites several new Corian colors: White Cap, a white color with pale pastel particles, inspired by the white caps of ocean waves; Oyster, a deeper neutral color, and Seashell, a taupe color that she describes as a "tinted neutral." Ebnesajjad adds that people often use a more intense version of that tint in the countertop as an accent color elsewhere for instance, inlay work, or one's table setting.

"We believe color will be prettier," agrees Buch-O'Dell. She cites "earth-inspired brights," colors evoking flowers, food and botanicals, as well as whites with a color undertone, for instance, green or violet, combined with a texture or pearlescence.

Despite the increasing market share of granite and engineered stone, Ebnesajjad insists solid surface still works in high-end applications, citing Corian's Private Collection series, which is available exclusively through high-end kitchen dealers. The Palladio and Artisan collections also pick up on the idea of tinted neutrals, with such colors as aubergine, chamois and ecru. "People are becoming much more sophisticated and individual, educated in color and texture," she concludes. "They want something unique and different."

Laminate Possibilities
New technology is enabling laminate manufacturers to come up with imaginative choices, as well as improve on old standards such as wood grain, manufacturers report.

"There's tremendous growth in the look of wood laminate," declares Nevamar's Buch-O'Dell. She credits the improved look of the product. "It used to look like a photograph there was no randomness, no imperfection," she explains. "Now, they've captured that. On the manufacturing side, we're able to do a lot more with pearlescent inks, because we saturate our paper, we don't dry print it. Pearlescent [on top of wood grain] captures the fire of a veneer."

She says that designers who previously shied away from laminate are picking up on these new wood looks, including a bamboo pattern that gives a kitchen a tropical look.

Overall, there's a trend toward pattern instead of solids, and granite looks remain a strong seller, notes Brenda White, spokesperson for Wilsonart International in Temple, TX. Marble patterns are also a top pick, and neutral tones predominate. However, some consumers pick granite-pattern laminates in colors that don't appear in nature, such as white or blue.

White adds that, in addition to creating design interest, patterns also hide stains better. "Consumers are looking at it from a practical standpoint as well as [appearance]," she elaborates.

White believes that metallic laminates are still utilized more in commercial applications. In residential use, metallic laminate is used primarily for backsplashes and appliance fronts. "They can't be used as a countertop, because they'll scratch and dent," she notes.

But Buch-O'Dell counters that the company's new paper-saturating technology produces a metallic laminate that can be used for horizontal applications. She cites brushed stainless steel and copper laminates, as well as subtle, soft metallics similar to a car finish.

Engineered Stone
The premise of engineered stone the convenience of solid surface with the natural look and feel of granite seems to be catching on in the marketplace.

"There's a trend of moving from plastics to hard surfaces," believes Brandon Calvo, v.p. for Cosentino USA (makers of Silestone), in Houston, TX. "Stone is becoming easier to fabricate; it's becoming more attainable."

Essentially, engineered stone takes real quartz and reconstitutes it to give it higher stain resistance and an easier-to-clean surface. "We're taking quartz, one of the hardest minerals in nature, and combining it with computerized technology," Calvo notes.

"With Zodiaq, people like the touch of coolness, a harder edge material," notes DuPont's Ebnesajjad. She adds that, like natural granite, Zodiaq is frequently used to make a splashy focal point in a kitchen.

"They don't mind using a brighter color," she says, and "I think the texture and material plays equally, if not more." She cites deeper colors, such as dark green and black, as popular Zodiaq picks.

Calvo adds that, while consumers may be attracted to engineered stone for its possibility of bright colors, they're actually buying the same sort of shades they might choose in a natural stone earth tones and neutrals. "They're combining different colors of engineered stone in the kitchen," Calvo elaborates, for instance, "earth tone creamy brown with a little blue in it [for the main countertop], solid blue on the islands, or solid accents on the backsplash." He adds that Silestone has a line with extremely small particulates that gives it a solid-color look.

Unlike natural stones, where the trend is toward less shiny surfaces, consumers picking engineered stone tend to favor a polished surface, which shows off the quartz crystals in the material. However, Caesarstone recently introduced a honed engineered stone line, reveals Arik Tendler, general manager for Caesarstone, in North Hollywood, CA.

Unlike natural granite, honed engineered stone doesn't present additional maintenance problems and doesn't have to be sealed. "That's the beauty of it," notes Tendler. "We still support our consumers with a 10-year guarantee, no sealer, no maintenance." The company also features a limestone line of colors that mirror that material's natural tan shades.

Caesarstone is also about to introduce a premium version of engineered stone. "It's a very, very expensive product," notes Tendler. "This is for people who already have everything else. It's like a piece of jewelry." Literally. The new surface adds semi-precious stones to the mix. "You can see a whole chunk of turquoise, it's amazing," he says. The new product will have a polished surface, and will be available in six colors.

Natural Stone
For another truly attention-getting, high-end countertop, Green River Stone Company has introduced fresh water limestone complete with genuine fish fossils of varying sizes embedded in it.

"For years, we'd been selling it as art," explains Greg Laco, president of Green River Stone Co., in Logan, Utah. But now, the unique limestone is available for tables, backsplashes and countertops.

"We sell stone from eight different layers in our quarry [in Wyoming]," Laco elaborates. "It has a range of colors and textures, but the primary colors are beige/ brown tones." One layer has a bluish grey tone, he adds.

The limestone has a matte finish, and must be treated with a penetrating sealer. In terms of maintenance, "it depends on how hard people are on their kitchens," notes Laco. However, the beautiful natural product is probably not the best countertop choice for a family with kids and heavy, messy traffic through the kitchen.

The product is priced for an upscale market because of the hand-finishing involved, and is usually utilized as the focal point of a kitchen. "If you have a 20" fossil fish in your bar top, it's very dramatic," concludes Laco.

Of course, granite is still the leader in the natural stone market, with advances in fabrication making it available to lower price points.

A revolutionary new product comes from the Cuyahoga Heights, OH-based Buystone, Inc., makers of TechnoStone, explains Buystone president David Hartman. The company offers real granite and marble at a dramatically lower price point, with a warranty, Hartman explains. Natural stone is cut to 1/3 of the thickness of a regular slab, then reinforced with a backing to make a product that's lighter, rendering it appropriate for applications such as bathroom walls.

TechnoStone was originally developed for use on the outside of buildings in Europe, and is available in 10 standard colors, the most popular being Uba Tuba and Baltic Brown. "We focused on [colors] that represent the bulk of stone popularity, [and that have] a homogeneous, monolithic look," says Hartman.

Consumers would be able to pick out their own slab, the same as with regular granite. Custom colors are possible for larger jobs, Hartman explains. It's offered in a polished finish, but can be honed.

Of course, traditionally fabricated granite is still the mainstay of the high-end market, and it, too, has lowered its price point as much as 10%, reports Jim Janochoski, national product manager for Cold Spring Granite, in Cold Spring, MN. He credits advancements in quarry technology and fabrication, including the new gang saws that take a block and cut it into hundreds of slabs simultaneously, that greatly increase output.

In terms of trends, Janochoski sees a return of more dramatically veined granites. "We've brought in some wild material, and it seems that's what they're looking for," he says. He also cites a bit less demand for green tones, and an increase in golds and browns, with black holding steady as a perennially popular color. Golds are particularly popular for honed looks, which remain a steady seller, but haven't increased much since last year.

The advent of leased stone fabrication equipment has also led to a proliferation of new fabricators. Starting a stone-working business no longer requires a six-figure investment, and lends itself more to garage-size operations, Janochoski elaborates. "That's probably not good for the industry," he adds, though, noting that most of the fly-by-night operations don't last long.

Janochoski admits that engineered stone is surprisingly popular. "We've seen more of it than anticipated," he says. He theorizes that consumer desires for colors not found in natural granite might partially explain engineered stone's popularity. "Some people like a really white, clean look," he notes, adding that he's seen jobs where people used natural granite on a center island and engineered stone on the main countertop.

Still, granite is holding its own. "For every homeowner and remodel job, they still at least get prices for granite," Janochoski reports. "The market as a whole is on the increase. Home starts are up, so we're hoping for a good year. Granite seems to be recession-proof." KBDN