Counter Fit

In today's upscale countertop market, granite is still "it." So, is it any wonder the industry is coming up with a host of granite-look options at a lower price point, as well as granite-style engineered stone that has fewer maintenance issues?

In the meantime, natural granite is also sporting a new look in the form of honed and satin finishes, as well as large tile for a more economical granite look.

Many other countertop choices from new looks in solid surface, to concrete to butcher block to good old ceramic tile are available as well, and consumers are frequently choosing them all for a mix and match kitchen, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Granite looks
Now that everyone and their brother seem to have a granite countertop, high-end customers are looking for a new and different look, reports Jim Janochoski, national product manager for Cold Spring Granite Inc., in Cold Spring, MN. That's answered by less shiny honed and satin finishes. "It's not as shiny as a gloss finish, [but] more buffed than honed," Janochoski explains about the latter. He adds that an impregnating sealer is recommended for less shiny surfaces, and "it takes a little more TLC to make sure the surface stays clean."

In recent years, the trend has also been toward smaller, tighter grains, in browns and gold, manufacturers note. "The earth tones are still very popular," says Janochoski. "It's a softer look with satin or honed finish."

Earth tones are also a hot pick for engineered stone, a significant entry in the market. "Zodiaq is over 90% natural quartz," explains Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development for the Wilmington, DE-based DuPont Surfaces, makers of Corian and Zodiaq. The engineered stone aims to alleviate some of natural granite's downsides, such as fault lines and lack of stain resistance, according to manufacturers. Ebnesajjad points out that real granite must be sealed with acrylic, which makes it somewhat man-made. It also has to be resealed periodically, unlike Zodiaq, she explains, noting that, "we take what nature has to offer and make it more functional."

"In most households, both of the parents are working. They're looking for something that requires less maintenance," adds Brandon Calvo, v.p./sales for Cosentino USA, in Stafford, TX, which manufactures Silestone. He notes that engineered stone is much less porous than natural stone, and comes in colors not available in natural granite, such as blue and yellow.

Engineered stone can even be honed, though Calvo points out that this process affects the maintenance factor. "You're actually creating small divots in the face of the material, and that tends to collect dirt."

Predictably, purveyors of natural stone don't think engineered stone measures up.

"From what we've seen, the pricing is similar if not higher; most folks look at engineered and natural stone and it's a no-
brainer," says Janochoski, though he admits the engineered stone has some advantages, such as additional choices in edging.

Granite laminates
For lower price points, the explosion in granite has resulted in new technology to produce a host of exciting granite-look laminates.

"We use an enhanced finish so you get more clarity," notes Brenda White, spokesperson for Wilsonart International, in Temple, TX. The new finishes are somewhat less shiny: "We don't recommend [a glossy finish] for horizontal surfaces because it shows scratches easily," she explains. The 10 colors with the series include traditional granite looks as well as a few "fantasy colors," including blue shades.

Formica has also launched new lines of realistic-looking granite- and marble-look laminates, reports Renee Hytry, v.p./design for Formica Corp., in Cincinnati, OH and the new lines instantly became the company's best sellers. "The printing processes are so much better," she notes, which results in a photo-realistic look.

Other new laminate looks from Wilsonart include a commercial product line, Evolve, which features a small-scale design that's a fusion of different organic and industrial materials. For accents and backsplashes, metallic laminate looks remain a popular choice.

Natural-looking small-scale patterns are also popular in laminates, adds Hytry. "Solid colors are out of favor. People are looking for visual texture." She cites sparkle finishes and lighter colors as popular in laminates, since those diminish visible scratches. "Tile aesthetics are also hot," she adds, citing a Formica textural product that looks like grouted ceramic tile, which can be edged with solid surface or wood for a grout-free tile look.

New surfaces
Perhaps in response to the previously mentioned granite looks, solid surface materials are moving away from granite textures to more innovative styles.

"[Designers] are excited about the new colors that are available, the solid colors," says James Yon, distributor for Samsung/Cheil Industries, Inc., makers of Staron products, in La Mirada, CA. He adds that the new solid surface is finding its way to other decorative applications, such as frames.

"Solid surface has become a classic, a noble material in its own right," declares Ebnesajjad.

"I think that's always the smart thing to do, to [develop] surfaces that are proud to be the materials they are," adds Zanger.

However, Ebnesajjad also notes that a significant portion of [Corian customers] like granite looks, a consistent seller for the company. Similarly, while brighter colors are a new trend for solid surface, "neutrals still dominate the market."

A currently hot new solid surface offering is Avonite's series of translucent glass-like products. The company originally predicted more use in commercial applications and on vanities, notes Wayne Rutledge, director of marketing communications for the Belen, NM-based Avonite Inc. But, the material is receiving rave reviews for kitchen countertops, as well. The "glass" countertop is available in a greenish, antique glass look, as well as a turquoise, a cobalt blue and a clear frosted glass whose backing can be tinted in colors for a unique look: For instance, painting the back purple would result in a frosted lavender glow.

"[The materials] draw on a contemporary technology but also mix in an emotional, nostalgic feeling," says Rutledge. "The lifestyles we have in 2001, you can't escape the technology, but you want to carry that nostalgic feeling with you and make your home comfortable."

Mix of materials
Each countertop material has its own strengths and weaknesses and many consumers respond by electing to use more than one, manufacturers agree.

Ebnesajjad points out that today's more educated and assertive consumer values function more than in previous decades. "They want everything to look good, but everything should have a functional purpose, as well. You start to see more mixing of material, of texture."

Thus, a beautiful granite island can be combined with stainless steel around the cooking area, butcher block for food preparation and solid surface to make the sink area easy to clean.

Other consumers are picking more exotic countertop materials, such as butcher block, stainless steel or concrete, to give their kitchen a definitive, "statement" look.

Pam Beam, national sales manager for the countertop division of John Boos & Co., in Effingham, IL, notes that butcher block is a time-honored classic that works well with many design applications. "It really stands the test of time," she says. Hard rock maple is hand-sanded and detailed; maintenance includes natural mineral oil, and gentle washing with soap and water. Butcher block is also a renewable surface that can be sanded down in case it gets burned or otherwise damaged. "Nothing warms the look of a kitchen like butcher block," adds Beam. "It adds a lot of depth and warmth."

The professional-look stainless steel countertop was a hot item when stainless steel was overtaking kitchen design, but seems to be declining of late. "That gets to be a very cold [look]," says Beam. "It's okay for certain applications." The advantage is sterility, she notes you can use bleach on it. The all-steel look with integrated welded steel sink also makes for a very contemporary, minimalist design choice. Its major disadvantage is stainless steel's tendency to scratch, which has led to an increase in textured or brushed steel countertops, since these don't show scratches as readily.

"It's a valid look," insists Zanger. "What happens traditionally is, when [a product] is new, it gets a lot of press, and then it becomes part of the mainstream design vocabulary."

For cutting-edge consumers, concrete is the choice du jour, though questions remain about maintenance and fabrication.

"Concrete is very much in vogue people want the softer texture, not [so much] contrast, to give you harmony and peacefulness," says Ebnesajjad.

"I think concrete countertops are a limited part of the market," says Zanger. Fabricating is difficult, he confirms, adding that, "it's for someone at the upper end of the spectrum who wants an unusual look."

Last but not least, the original countertop material, ceramic tile, is still a popular selection for those who want to maintain the retro character of an older home they're renovating. Additionally, tile is a stylish, economical choice to pair with granite or other more expensive materials. "It saves a lot of money and it still looks good," says Zanger. Another money-
saving alternative, granite tiles give a granite look at a lower cost than a slab.

When it comes to tile, the trend is toward larger tiles, notes Zanger. "The technology that will make a ceramic tile larger without warping is improving," he explains. "So you have a lot of design options. The larger tiles minimize grout areas that remain a maintenance problem with ceramics, even with the introduction of more stain-resistant epoxy grout [materials]."

Zanger notes that his company is introducing stainless steel mosaic tiles to coordinate with steel appliances. In general, mosaics and medallions have made tile a particularly appealing choice for backsplashes.

But, in the end, he concludes, "people are opening so many new quarries and there's so many new granites available. Granite rules in the upper end of the countertop market." KBDN