Counter Expressions

Not so very long ago, if a designer wanted to get creative with countertops, there weren't many materials to choose from. But those days are long gone. Today, designers can achieve a vast array of looks and functional benefits, using everything from granite, solid surface and engineered stone to tile, butcher block, stainless steel and even concrete and new choices are being added all the time.

With this wide array of choices, kitchens are increasingly taking on a mix-and-match theme, to create unique, personalized designs that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but cost effective and easy to maintain as well, according to kitchen dealers and manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Countertops Combinations
"When looking at trends in kitchen countertop design, we first look at how people are living in their homes, as product design generally follows lifestyle trends," reports Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, Color Manager for DuPont Surfaces, in Wilmington, DE. "The primary lifestyle evolution we're seeing is that people are spending more time in their homes with their families and friends, building larger kitchens and using them as activity centers. Because of the increased traffic in the kitchen, homeowners are looking for 'smart' materials those that are high performing, easy to maintain, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly. Because homeowners also have a stronger sense of style, they're looking for materials that give them the freedom to personalize their space. They're open to mixing materials and selecting from large color palettes, and they often seek custom edges, inlays, sinks and/or backsplashes as accents," she states.

The Odenton, MD-based Nevamar's Terrie O'Dell, senior design manager, and board of directors of the Color Marketing Group, sees the same trend. "Probably the most exciting trend in kitchen countertop design is the use of mixed materials to not only create a personalized style but to save cost while doing so. This current trend of mixing materials will lead to the desire to explore other materials that have not necessarily been used as countertops or even considered for use in residential countertops. It will also lead to the development of new materials. Consumers will become less risk-adverse and will desire materials and colors that will allow them to create a unique, customized space that's affordable to the average homeowner."

According to Monica Canales, director of marketing for the Stafford, TX-based Cosentino USA, maker of Silestone quartz surfacing, "Homeowners are combining a variety of materials and colors, like stone with ceramic or brick, to get an array of natural hues and textures in the kitchen." Canales adds that "plastic, artificial looking colors and surfaces are definitely on the way out."

The current trend toward the mixing of materials has grown not only out of the desire to save costs but to humanize and personalize the kitchen space as well, manufacturers agree. According to Pam Beam, National Sales Manager/ Countertops for John Boos & Co., in Effingham, IL, "Our figures for 2002, coupled with feedback we've received from our dealers across the country, indicate that fewer buyers are looking at one main countertop material throughout the kitchen, and are instead looking to 'zone' the kitchen based on functionality. We're seeing a lot of butcher blocks inset into various countertop materials, including natural stone, composites and laminates, metals and other surfaces. This is occurring not only around traditional food preparation areas such as sinks and next to ranges and cooktops, but also in what are becoming 'presentation' areas, where various meal elements are placed just before serving. These insets are being done in a lot of shapes and sizes we've not seen before, which we believe indicates these buyers are looking at the insets as both a functional cutting surface and a design element."

"The kitchen has become the activity center of the home; it is the family gathering spot and the entertainment spot as well," says O'Dell. "Formal inclusive kitchens are becoming a thing of the past as today's kitchens open to family rooms to create the Great Room. Inside-out, outside-in is a growing trend, and more kitchens either open to the outside patio and yard or outdoor kitchens are added to take advantage of the exterior environment."

Limitless Possibilities
Both the wide array of material choices and new advances in technology are enabling manufacturers to create distinctive materials with unique and unlimited possibilities. However, whether used throughout the kitchen, or just used in one area, granite remains a big favorite with consumers, many report.

"More and more customers are using granite because of its performance, its resistance to heat, and the perception of luxury. Granite is still considered the 'ultimate,'" says Tony Caciolo, president of the Philadelphia, PA-based Monticello Granite, Ltd.

John Scott, v.p./Fabrication Products for the St. Louis, MO-based Swanstone notes, "We're seeing more granite style countertops and more mixing of countertop materials such as granite and solid surface." Scott adds that one advantage to granite is its ability to match and complement stainless steel sinks and appliances.

However not all manufacturers believe that the granite trend is likely to continue. "Granite has been extremely popular, but its overwhelming popularity may be peaking," notes O'Dell "It will always be in demand, because it is a classic material. But concrete is the countertop material that is currently getting all the attention and creating a buzz."

O'Dell sees concrete as the next "hot" material, and she notes, "I think demand for it will increase, especially as consumers become more familiar with it and understand how to care for it. From a color and design perspective, it is so versatile and you can create a signature look with it through color, texture, finish or by adding inclusions like pieces of glass, metal or just about anything else you might want to add."

O'Dell adds that price concerns, too, make granite less than viable for many consumers. To that end, she adds, "Laminate will always be considered one of the most desirable countertop materials, not only because of its relatively low cost, but because it is offered in an extraordinary array of patterns and a full spectrum of colors. It is affordable, and it is [generally] easier to replace than natural stone or solid surface, allowing the consumer ultimate flexibility to create an entirely new kitchen personality by replacing their existing countertop with a hot new updated color or pattern."

"While granite is very popular, many people can't afford it," agrees Brenda White of the Temple, TX-based Wilsonart International. "Laminate is still a very popular countertop material it comes in many styles and colors, is very durable and maintenance is low. It allows consumers to get the look they want at a price they can afford."

In terms of styles, White says, "Brushed metallics with warm tones, such as bronze, copper and aged textures, are rising in popularity." White also notes sees glass looks, pearlescent and opal finishes gaining in popularity.

"Consumers want 'smart' materials that are beautiful and functional, and that leave them with no worries," says Ebnesajjad. "That's why we're seeing a significant growth now in quartz surfaces and engineered stones." She notes that these take "the best of nature and make it better for consumers to live and work with." Engineered stones, she believes, is a continuation of "this trend towards 'smart' materials."

For a more eclectic choice, the Logan, UT-based Green River Stone Co. has recently introduced to the market freshwater limestone; a 50 million-year-old fossil stone featuring preserved fossil fish, which is naturally porous and similar to marble in hardness. To personalize kitchen countertops for the homeowners, "We take drawings from consumers or their designers or architects, then find suitable slabs of stone for their needs," notes Green River Stone Co. president Gregory E. Laco. "We are able to select slabs with fossil fish in specific featured areas, and e-mail digital photos of the stone to consumers for their approval. They loved to be involved to that degree." Laco adds that the fossil stone is treated to prevent staining.

"With the hectic lifestyles people are living, convenience is an important factor," reports Canales. "[For that reason], right now, we're seeing a trend toward quartz surfacing."

Ceramic tile, too, remains a popular choice, particularly for backsplash applications. According to Jennifer Capasso, marketing director for the Sylmar, CA-based Walker Zanger, "Even if they do a laminate or [solid surface] countertop, they'll frequently put a ceramic or glass or metal backsplash in tile. People are being more adventurous, they're not just doing straight stone. There are more materials [being used], it's not just ceramic and stone anymore. With tiles, you'll see pewter, copper, bronze, leather, even cement tiles, and more mixing and matching, for instance, stone tile with a glass inset."

The reason for the growing popularity, she believes, is that tile creates so many design options. "With tile, you can do all kinds of designs on it, hand painting on ceramic tile or stone, designs etched in stone, water jet etching, etc."

She also sees tile as a strong choice for the backsplash, "For instance, they'll do a neutral kitchen, neutral cabinets, neutral countertops, then use a splash of color on the backsplash to make that a dramatic focal point."

Nature's Popularity
Consumers are still looking for neutral and natural colors that are harmonious with their surroundings, according to manufacturers.

"Greens and a full range of neutrals are still very much in demand, and we have seen an increase in the desire for blues," reports O'Dell. "Consumers are very comfortable with colors found in natural stones and materials, and also with patterns that are mindful of natural materials. We believe there will be an increase in the desire for natural colors inspired by earth and water, such as Terra Cotta, softened golds and yellows, fresh 'comfort' greens like olive, tapenade and khaki and a range of blues. Neutrals are always a popular choice for kitchen countertops, but the new neutrals have ambiguous undertones that allow them to move comfortably from one color family to another."

That's not to say that consumers are staying away from color altogether. According to White, colors are much more sophisticated now than they once were. "They utilize special effects [metallic, pearl, opal finishes] and layered color to create dimensional effects even in flat surfaces. Consumers want upscale looks that are also easy to maintain. Neutral colors are still popular, but consumers are using more saturated colors. Flat, one-dimensional color is out. Solid colors have been losing popularity, because they lack a 'natural look' and they show stains more readily. Granite, stone and concrete looks come in a variety of colors and go with many styles such as traditional, contemporary, etc." She adds that warm tones, earthy-reds, orange and yellow families are also currently popular with consumers.

"Our most popular colors have been neutrals," reports Canales. "We're seeing a trend towards warm, natural colors and the look of natural stone. We anticipate that the industry will continue towards light colors with a more natural look." Canales notes that, "Upscale markets are driving the desire for the natural look, but the look is not exclusive to the upscale market."

However, Capasso explains that, while the soft water colors and muted tones still have an audience, "We're seeing a need for more 'real' colors, vibrant colors, real blues, real reads, and real yellows, not washed out, muted kind of colors. People are becoming more adventurous with color, and it's morphing into a different color palette." KBDN