Counter Expressions

Counter Expressions

Educated consumers continue to look to nature-inspired colors and materials, while growth in the engineered stone segment suggests a continued desire for the benefits of natural stone, without the maintenance.

By Denise D. Vermeulen

Today's consumers are excited about the broad array of options when remodeling the kitchen. And, few places in the home have seen more creativity or advances in technology than the kitchen countertop.

Choosing a countertop can be a bit of a challenge but only because there are so many great choices out there nowadays. From a broad array of natural and engineered stone choices and solid surface in every color and pattern imaginable, to stainless steel, tile, concrete, butcher block, laminate, glass, lava stone, soapstone and more, there's something for every taste, budget and design style.

The mix-and-match approach to choosing countertops remains a strong theme, both for aesthetic and budgetary reasons, while honed surfaces seem to be gaining ground over shiny polished ones, and texture remains the watchword of the day.

Stone Love
According to dealers and manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, demand for countertops made from natural and engineered stone is rapidly increasing, and granite remains one of the hottest choices around.
According to Jim Janochoski, national sales manager for Cold Spring Granite Co. in Cold Spring, MN, "Granite continues to be a dynamic material for tops. The crystal structure of granite gives it a 3-D depth that no synthetic material can simulate."

Nevertheless, many in the industry agree that the growing demand for engineered stone products is driven by these products' functionality and ease of care. "We are seeing more and more consumers asking for a natural stone product for their home," says Jenny Sullivan, marketing manager for CAMBRIA, USA, in Eden Prairie, MN. "And, the fact that [quartz] is care-free makes it more appealing to some consumers than granite, which has to be maintained."

While granite scores big among high-end consumers desiring "trophy kitchens," or those for whom maintenance is not an issue, others who frequently use their kitchens may love the look of stone but be uncomfortable with the level of maintenance required to keep a granite countertop looking good and functioning well And, while granite needs to be sealed regularly, the latest in engineered stone requires little of the consumer.

Another advantage of engineered stone, manufacturers point out, is that designers can show the countertop choices to the customer right in the showroom. The product has a consistent look that consumers can identify and count on. And, there are no trips to the manufacturer's stone yard required.

Laminate Appeal
Terrie O'Dell, CMG, senior design manager for Nevamar Co., in Odenton, MD, acknowledges the popularity of granite, but adds, "It still remains out of reach for the majority of homeowners." Likewise, she points out that "engineered stone, quartz, solid surface, concrete and even lava stone are gaining popularity, but once again, the price point can be a budget buster."

However, even at lower price points, the popularity of natural stone continues to drive style trends, O'Dell believes. And, to that end, companies selling laminate are recognizing the appeal of a natural stone look and incorporating the idea into their own marketing strategies. As O'Dell explains, "There is a continuing demand for laminate countertops that resemble engineered stone, granite and concrete."

Natural Palettes
When it comes to color choices, "The hottest trend is natural colors with movement and depth," says Gina Covell, spokesperson for Silestone by Cosentino, which is based in Stafford, TX.

Wayne Rutledge, marketing communications manager for Avonite Surfaces, in Florence, KY, agrees that color is important. "Consumers are becoming more comfortable with color," he notes, adding that the consumer is "more definite about seeking out distinctive ways to express personality and sense of style. Counter surfaces are an ideal place to make that statement in the kitchen."

Sullivan agrees that "color is a huge selling point," and adds, "I think consumers choose color first and foremost when selecting a surface. If they see a color they like, they are immediately intrigued to learn more about
the surface."

But, regardless of the material chosen for countertops, the trend is decidedly toward natural colors. GinGuei Ebnesajjad, director of product styling and development for DuPont Corian Surfaces in Wilmington, DE, claims that the desire "to balance the material and spiritual needs" is reflected in the recent color trends. "We have seen the natural and neutral color trend for the last few years as a result of this desire. The soft shades of the neutral and natural colors, and tone-on-tone patterns provide balance to the intensity of the high-tech gears around us," she says.

She further notes that these natural tones "provide less stimulation" and induce a calming effect something that holds great appeal for today's overworked and overstressed families.

Rutledge also points to the "continuing popularity of nature's own broad spectrum of comfortable earth tones, with familiar colors, down-to-earth textures and occasional vivid accents."

The natural quartz surfaces offered in today's showrooms have "natural variation in the color pattern," says Sullivan.
John Scott III, v.p. for fabrication products at The Swan Corp., in St. Louis, MO, agrees: "There seems to be a greater demand now for the earthy tones." He adds that popular colors include those with "larger chips or chunk patterns."

O'Dell points out that there is growing momentum for entertaining at home, and adds, "The current and forecasted color mood for this lifestyle is natural. The warm hues found in natural elements such as stones, minerals and terra cotta will become part of our neutral palette and should continue to be best sellers for countertops."

O'Dell includes colors such as sage and wasabi as part of the neutral palette and suggests that colors such as "eggplant, sun-dried tomato and cayenne will comprise part of the accent palette." He adds, "Deep, aquatic-influenced blues for countertops will continue to uptrend as they offer a rich counterpoint not only to maple and cherry wood grains but to glazed and highlighted finishes." Additionally, he notes, "We're seeing an increase in the desire for buttery yellows and softened golds."

O'Dell believes, "Popular patterns for kitchen countertops will continue to be those that are remindful of natural materials such as stone, granite, slate and concrete... small-scale, near-solid patterns will have an organic or textural quality that will exude an essence of nature."

Janochoski points out that, "Golds and brown are still the most popular color choices."

He notes also the trend to use more honed finishes, as well. Janochoski also says he is seeing "a few more designs using blue and burgundy colors," with consumers purchasing about 50% of countertops with solid color and 50% "with movement."

DuPont's Ebnesajjad predicts that this color trend will "evolve toward cleaner and fresher colors, and more complex yet refined patterns," even including "tactile textures."

Mix & Match
"The trend of material mixing seen in high-end kitchens will continue and expand to the mass market," says Ebnesajjad, who adds, "Not only have we seen the growing use of different material or aesthetics for the center island that is different from the other counter space, we are now beginning to see the use of different colors, aesthetics and materials within the same counter space, such as the island." She explains further that a theme can be carried over to the moldings and borders for the countertop backsplash. She believes the mixing and matching of materials is one way for the consumer to personalize the space.

Mixing materials can be both cost effective and practical. Sullivan says, "I've seen a lot of people put a laminate or solid surface in the perimeter of their kitchen, while placing a natural stone on the island the focal point of the room. The island is where everyone gathers, so it is ideal to have a rich, sleek natural surface there. The perimeter gets covered up with appliances and other bits and pieces."

O'Dell agrees that the mix-and-match trend is strong and likely to continue. "Combining materials is one means of affording some of the pricey natural materials such as granite or lava stone because a small amount can be used to create a focal space, while laminate or another value-engineered material can be used for the majority of the worktop space. Additionally, blending materials provides visual interest and contrast, giving the kitchen space warmth and character."

Covell agrees, saying, "Lots of people like to mix stones to add interest."

Function & Beauty
Ebnesajjad believes that function is increasingly important in choosing the materials used in the kitchen, and she notes, "The countertop is required to satisfy both the functional and decorative needs of its occupants... There is a growing trend in balancing the need for both function and beauty, along with mixing a variety of materials within the kitchen space that blend color and texture in a harmonious fashion."

The kitchen as the centerpiece of the home lends itself well to both the mixing of countertop materials and to the latest maintenance-free stone products and solid surface materials. Technology advances along with improvement in design quality offer options to meet a variety of consumer needs and design preferences.

"We are seeing a steady evolution on the role of countertops," says Covell. "There is a heightened need for easy-to-clean, beautiful and functional countertops. In the past, consumers sometimes sacrificed beauty for function or vice versa. Today, homeowners do not want to compromise functionality or beauty they want it all."

Likewise, Ebnesajjad sees countertop trends being influenced by the popular media. She notes, "Supported by TV and the Internet, consumers are exposed to a wide and varied range of sights, scenes, cultures, styles and ways of life around the world. The results of this exposure are expressed in consumer desires and comfortableness with a more eclectic style, which is reflected in the trend of material and style mixing. At the same time, the technology advances help to make more materials available."

Covell agrees that the power of television has not been lost on this industry. "The popularity of home improvement television shows has skyrocketed," she says. "Many of the designers of these projects use more than one color and even more than one material in countertops, and people are now experimenting more with this concept," she adds.

"The consumer is always looking for creative ideas and products that reflect imagination. As a consumer's lifestyle improves and his disposable income becomes greater, he will use it to upgrade his home," concludes Scott. KBDN