Stimulating Surface Design

As designers work to create exciting yet functional workspaces, there’s a move away from traditional materials and approaches and toward the integration of aesthetically interesting ideas – whether it’s layering materials, alternating thicknesses or coming up with other creative design applications. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, who see consumers seeking durable, easy-care multipurpose materials that also add design appeal.

“The residential segment is taking its lead from the hospitality segment by designing kitchens that include unique and interesting countertop materials,” says Dale Mandell, North America sales director for the architectural products division at Samsung Chemical Industries, Inc. in La Mirada, CA.

Gerri Chmiel, senior design manager for Formica Corp. in Cincinnati, OH, says that integrated dining, which incorporates dining space into the countertop or island, continues to be a popular trend. “We’re also seeing designers using different surfacing materials and countertop heights to visually separate different zones in a kitchen, be it for dining, baking or food prep,” she adds. Layering materials, such as wood or solid surface over stone, is an international trend that is beginning to show up in the U.S. as well, according to Chmiel.

Another approach on the rise is the use of multiple colors for surfaces in residential projects, says Bob Paradiso, v.p./sales and marketing at Hanwha L&C Surfaces in Atlanta, GA. “What’s driving that is that multicolor gives the end user more flexibility as far as matching their cabinets to their flooring,” he says.

Tammy Weadock, marketing communications manager, PR/online and sustainability for Wilsonart International in Temple, TX, says that simplicity is still valued in modern kitchen countertop trends. “No fuss, low-maintenance countertops are as important as ever to consumers in this high-impact, fast-paced space we know as the modern family kitchen.”

INVESTMENT IN QUALITY

Designers mindful of consumers’ budgetary concerns have plenty of options with the number of products available at varying price points. “Homeowners with limited budgets don’t have to sacrifice their desired design aesthetics, as the current trends can be created at any price point based on material choice,” says Chmiel.

However, materials must live up to consumers’ expectations, regardless of price point, says Lorenzo Marquez, v.p./marketing at the Stafford, TX-based Cosentino. “With bigger budgets, we often see increased customization and more surfacing integrated into the kitchen plan. We’re noticing many high-end projects with waterfall countertops or a clean, seamless look that will include a wall-to-wall Silestone quartz backsplash and integrated sink.” He adds, “Consumers who are more value-minded focus on maximizing their investment with quality products that will last.”

Mandell says that creating materials that use ultra-fine particulates, which allows them to achieve a more modern palette, is a more expensive process, therefore, those materials often command a slight premium. “Interestingly, it seems households that have the resources to remodel may change-out a countertop rather than [doing the whole kitchen over],” he says. “As such, homeowners tend to upgrade the countertop materials and are seeking high-quality materials that provide the design aesthetics they feel are important.”

Another impact of the more budget-conscious climate, according to Paradiso, is that consumers generally expect that they have to live with the countertop for 10 to 12 years. Therefore, they want something that isn’t bland, he notes. “We see them investing in design, which as you get more intricate design, you get to higher price points in their countertops.” Consumers are willing to invest in a higher-end product, he says, as they upgrade to something that makes a statement about who they are.

“Across the range of price points, from high to low, consumers are demanding functional products that look great," adds Trisha Schmitt, v.p./marketing for the Holstein, IA-based VT Industries. "They want low-maintenance surfaces with a beautiful, high-end look.”

MATERIAL GOODS

While granite has long seemed the holy grail of countertops, and still has a solid position in the high-end countertop market, manufacturers say other materials are on the rise, due to factors like cost, sustainability, ease of maintenance and warranties.

“Aspirational materials like granite and natural stone are highly influential,” says Weadock. “With consideration to sustainable attributes, laminate now offers beautiful translations of granites and stones in a variety of designs, colors and price points.”

Quartz is in high demand, manufacturers say, for many reasons. “If desired, colors and patterns that are different from granite are available in quartz materials. Plus, the product is virtually nonporous and does not require chemical sealants,” says Mandell. An added benefit, he continues, is the fact that quartz surfaces typically carry a manufacturer’s warranty of 10 to 15 years.

Huong Tran, marketing manager at Vicostone USA in Dallas, TX, says the demand for quartz is on the rise because it’s a material that is environmentally friendly, durable and safe for food.

Marquez adds, “We’re seeing a growing consistency amongst consumers, designers and industry professionals who are seeking surfacing that resembles the look and feel of natural stone, but requires little maintenance. I think we can expect to see a continued investment in natural quartz countertops because they are easy to clean, never need to be sealed and require very little maintenance. Overall, homeowners consider the countertop as a major investment for the kitchen, so they demand a product that will stand the test of time and look great for decades.”

“What’s nice about quartz is that it’s nonporous,” agrees Mike Morici, director, HI-MACS & Viatera for LG Hausys America, Inc. in Atlanta, GA. "There’s a comfort level that if you have quartz surfacing, you don’t have to be so protective or worry about every little thing that gets spilled on it.”

Solid surface, on the other hand, has flexible qualities that allow people to incorporate other products, such as trivets, drainage boards, hot plates, lights and even touch-screen TV monitors into the surface, Morici adds. “There’s going to be lots of unique applications in the future, and solid surface really is set up well to adapt to that,” he says.

Mandell adds, “If seamless countertops without the visible joint lines in a stone or quartz countertop are preferred, there are high-end acrylic surfaces that emulate the appearance of natural quartz while providing all of the benefits of a solid-surface material and without obvious joints or seams.”

In a still-challenging economy, laminate also offers an affordable option with many design choices. “Overall we’re still seeing the continued presence of stone looks in the laminate market,” says Schmitt. “Laminate technology continues to advance, yielding beautiful laminates that are then paired with postformed edge profiles for gorgeous, realistic countertop options.”

VISUAL APPEAL

Countertops dominate much of the kitchen, making colors, patterns and design elements like edging and backsplashes important in achieving a designer’s overall vision. A natural stone look is still popular, regardless of whether the materials are real stone or materials that simulate that appearance.

The overwhelming trend in countertops now favors natural stone-look colors for quartz, especially those representing rare and/or expensive marbles and granites.

“We’re seeing that large-scale, exotic granite, stone and marble looks still hold mass appeal as Formica’s 180fx large-scale designs remain our most popular laminate offerings,” says Chmiel. In addition, she adds, “Textures that enhance the realism of a pattern without detracting from it continue to be successful.”

Schmitt agrees that texture is another visible trend. “We’re seeing more realistic stone textures in the premium laminates, which is due in part to the advancement of laminate technology. As far as color trends go, we’re seeing more grey and white – in these colors and in the undertones as well,” she says.

Marquez adds, “While color is always in style, neutral colors are gaining popularity, with white as one of the most sought-after shades.”

Weadock agrees. “We have found earthy colors, such as amber and brown, have dominated the market for the last couple of years, but now we see white emerging as a way to create a sense of optimism and brighten a space. With the strong use of brighter, bolder colors in paints, fabrics and accessories, white offers a cleaner backdrop for these colors,” she says.

Color choices vary by region as well, say manufacturers. According to Morici, brown and beige countertops are still popular, but there is also a rising demand for white colors and modern patterns in the northeast regions.

Mandell says, “We’ve noticed an increased demand for colors and patterns that are less similar to granite, but are more monotone and modern with subtle design elements such as metallic flecks. Countertop designs are becoming sleek and understated. The use of tone-on-tone monochromatic colors for countertops in kitchens is likely to increase as traditional cabinet designs give way to subtle, modern cabinetry that integrates European design with American functionality.”

Another way to make a visual impact in the kitchen is to vary the edging and/or use a variety of materials on different layers of countertop surfaces that are used for different purposes. “The ‘mixing of materials’ can help differentiate these layers within the kitchen and add more visual interest,” says Weadock. “For example, a more neutral material/design could be used along the perimeter of the kitchen, and a larger-scale design would add a visual shift and focus on an island or work area.”

“Designers also are making a design statement by simply varying the thickness of a countertop,” says Chmiel. “With traditional countertops measuring between 1-1/4" and 1-1/2" thick, altering the surface to be thicker or thinner is an easy way to add visual interest.”

From Marquez’ perspective on edging, thin is in. “Thinner countertops (1 cm) are a trend we’ve seen in Europe for a few months and one we anticipate emerging in the U.S. Simple, thin countertops create a contemporary look for the kitchen that works in spaces of all sizes and a variety of layouts. Typically, homeowners and designers seeking this aesthetic will also use a flat edging with minimal detail, such as an eased edge,” he says.

PEAK PERFORMANCE

Countertops are constantly put to the test. Not only must the look fit the feel of the kitchen, but the surface must also stand the test of time. “Kitchen remodels are expected to last long-er than ever, so durable, low-maintenance materials that still meet the needs of the family are key,” says Chmiel.

Paradiso says that durability is a given, with buyers expecting countertops to last. “Ease of maintenance has become a key factor in people’s selection, even over price, over durability, over product performance. They don’t want to have to scrub their countertop every day.”

Chmiel agrees. “The integration of an undermount sink in a countertop removes the raised lip of a drop-in sink, allowing for easier clean up of spills and crumbs,” says Chmiel. “With sink manufacturers introducing undermount options specifically for laminate, undermount sink usage will be even more prevalent in the future,” she adds.

Schmitt notes, “In the laminate countertop sector, people are achieving the look and functionality of the undermount sink paired with the laminate countertop products.”

“Integrated sinks are another feature that provides a smooth surface with easy clean-up,” says Weadock.

Designers must also take into account the various ways a homeowner will put their countertop to use to make the best choice for their clients. Marquez says countertop usage is reflecting a move toward congregating around a table, island or counter to socialize. “‘Integrated tables' or ‘social tables’ that merge an island with a countertop or feature a surface with a drop-down or wrap-around countertop, with a level lower, are becoming increasingly popular for a number of entertainment and aesthetic reasons,” he says. “Some homeowners prefer to have the ‘children’s table’ connected to the main kitchen island to have continuation of seating and serving space. Others prefer the varied aesthetic the drop-down or wrap-around surface of an integrated table provides and desire the level of drama it adds to the overall design of the kitchen.”

SURFACE SPACE

The evolution of the kitchen into a more multipurpose space means countertops get more use as well. Beyond prep space for cooking, the surfaces are used for dining, studying, crafts, storage and more. As this occurs, most manufacturers say the amount of surface area is naturally getting larger.

“Kitchens are the gathering places in the home and are being used for so much more than just food preparation,” says Schmitt. “Oversized bars or islands are trending as people are opting for a less formal dining area and are including seating and functionality into the space.”

Weadock agrees, adding, “We are finding that by creating surface layers, kitchens become more functional for these diverse activities.”

Paradiso believes, “Islands are picking up more attention. We definitely see the island becoming the focal point within the kitchen.” These islands tend to have more extravagant design and intricate edge treatments, he says.

And, “though kitchens may be getting smaller, the islands are getting larger,” Morici maintains, explaining that LG Hausys manufactures quartz in a jumbo size slab (130"x63" as opposed to the traditional 120"x54"), which allows fabricators to get an island done with one slab.

Kitchens are moving to a more open concept, and may be replacing formal dining areas as well. “As homeowners are forgoing their formal dining rooms, the countertop surface area has expanded to incorporate the dining function,” says Chmiel.

“Architects and designers are knocking down walls more than ever before to create a continuation of space – fusing together the kitchen and living room. This open plan continues to gain popularity and, as a result, more surface space is becoming a preference in making the kitchen truly the 'heart of the home’,” says Marquez. “In achieving an open-plan look, designers are now removing more cabinetry and wall fixtures and opting for expansive kitchen islands that add a multi-functional element to the kitchen – a worktop for counter space and storage beneath,” he concludes.

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