Ideas for Smashing Splashes & Counter Designs

With the emerging interest in sleek, simple contemporary kitchens, as well as more tailored traditional ones, successful designers have realized they need to seek new ways to differentiate their proposed solutions from less sophisticated, price-sensitive competitors.

A good product category to demonstrate your talent and expertise is surfacing – the products you select and specify for counter surfaces and backsplashes. Taking a fresh look at these hard-working parts of a modern kitchen can allow you to showcase your expertise and provide a beautiful focal point in the room.

Material Selections

These days, there’s a wide variety of carefully engineered, functionally appropriate surfaces for counters and splashes. Most designers are very well-versed in using granite, marble and quartz surfaces. Some other possibilities include:

  • Three-dimensional, high-definition laminate surfaces fabricated with elegant edges offer a new take on the hard-working counter surface.
  • Crisp and clean variations of white solid surfacing material are elegantly appropriate for contemporary spaces.
  • New inkjet printing technology has extended the ceramic tile offering, so that we now have beautiful “stone” or “marble-like” porcelain materials that offer durability and cost efficiency advantages.
  • Organic materials, such as concrete, properly finished woods and industrial metal materials are great as accent surfaces or as full countertop selections.
  • Back-painted glass fabricated to provide a hard-working counter surface, as well as elegant enameled lava stone surfaces such as Pyrolave, should be on the designer’s list of possibilities for that client who is looking for something “different.”
  • A wide selection of recycled materials that offer beautiful surfaces also provide counter and splash possibilities.

Some designers have a deep, experience-based level of knowledge with all of these products. They may also be lucky enough to have worked with installation specialists for each category. Other designers may be experts in some of these materials, but may not have worked with others.

Expand Your Skill Set

Because counters and splashes are an important part of the design aesthetic, as well as the functionality of the room, many designers are setting aside research time so they can increase their knowledge around materials not widely used in their marketplace. Here are some suggestions about how you can tackle such a process.

First, consider all of the surfacing and splash materials you have experience with, and divide them into categories, ranking their importance based on your targeted consumer’s design preferences. These might include:

1. Known and cherished choices appropriate for all types of kitchens.

2. New choices that expand traditional and/or contemporary design options.

3. New “green” materials that are a good fit for your targeted consumer.

4. New unusual, colorful and textured materials that may offer a “surprise and delight” factor to the consumer searching for a personalized, “one-of-a-kind” design.

Once you’ve established a list, the goal is to thoroughly research these materials so you are familiar with their aesthetic and performance characteristics, installation quirks and comparative costing factors. The goal is to be able to specify a new accent material or overall surface that convinces the consumer you are the best designer for the job, while protecting your profits and ensuring you will delight the client with the finished product.

To begin this research project, here are a couple suggestions:

1. Have an open mind. Don’t automatically assume you know that something “works” or “doesn’t work.” Perhaps you used a wood top 10 years ago in a water area and it deteriorated. It may have resulted in a costly replacement solution. Today, wood countertops are finished with much more durable sealants. Additionally, there is a revolution going on in sink design that is moving the draining function, as well as a drip-drying function, off the countertop adjacent to the sink and into the boundaries of the sink itself. Therefore, if you have long thought that wood is not a good countertop surface, rethink this stance.

2. Start a research project in a generic fashion; what can you find out on the Internet about the material? What is it made of? What type of durability does it provide?

3. Use social media to identify experiential knowledge that other designers may be able to share with you.

4. Identify (locally if possible) manufacturers, representatives or installation experts.

5. Complete a cost comparison. I like to work with one plan and one set of specifications so I am able to accurately compare prices between sources for one material category or between various material categories themselves.

By increasing your portfolio of design possibilities, you will extend your creativity – profitably.

Trends in Splashes and Countertops

Before we study some actual examples of interesting counter and splash design solutions, here are a few trends I see in the near future.

  • The actual countertop area in kitchens is being reduced because mid-height or pantry cabinets are replacing traditional base wall cabinet configurations in many cases. This makes sense; once you’ve met the countertop work area criteria, tall storage is a better ergonomic choice as it offers easier access to the totally adjustable shelves within. The use of such tall cabinets means more attention must be paid to the “fit and finish” between the end of a countertop and the adjacent tall cabinet that might be shallower, the same depth or deeper than the adjacent run of base cabinets.
  • Backsplash wall space is being turned into interesting storage cavities. Hanging a rack on a wall is pretty simple; however, new backsplash storage systems change the accessibility of traditional wall cabinets. The user’s reaching capabilities become an important part of the planning process. Kitchen planning standards allow any surface 16" or deeper to be considered a functional work area. Therefore, a backsplash storage system can begin 16" to 18" back from the front edge of the countertop for a more petite cook.
  • In place of wall cabinets, open decorative shelves are being specified to enhance contemporary spaces. This design element changes the way we decide the termination details of the backsplash.
  • Material mixing is king! An excellent way to make a simple kitchen far more interesting is to treat each counter surface, each snack counter and each splash area as separate design details. This adds to the complexity of layout plans. To avoid appearance misunderstandings or cost overruns, large-scaled detailed drawings on the floor plan or elevations need to be prepared to make sure everything fits correctly.
  • As mentioned above, there is a dramatic change taking place in the design of sinks that is impacting water damage or dripping concerns. Therefore, the depth of the countertop overhang and the durability of the countertop must be matched with the user’s surface performance expectations.
  • Pattern preferences seem to be very flexible: granites with beautiful movement are cherished for island specifications. On the other hand, the simplicity and monolithic form of quartz slabs is also valued. Intricately detailed tile splashes are valued in traditional spaces, but sleek, full slabs of glass or tile are considered more appropriate for contemporary rooms. These choices are best presented to the client with big product samples and/or accurately scaled elevation drawings or realistic renderings.

Design Detailing

After visiting The LivingKitchen Fair in Cologne, Germany in January, as well as working on my new Kitchen & Bath Design News seminar, which focuses on design detailing in transitional and contemporary spaces, I have compiled some key design details for you to consider when specifying the finished room.

These examples demonstrate how seemingly small details in the shape or height of splash material, the edging of different materials or the combination of materials can dramatically impact the finished room.

Consumers are searching for a designer they can trust. They sometimes have a very hard time differentiating the value of a professional designer when considering several competitive overall solutions that look deceptively alike. This becomes even more difficult if it is a very simple shaker-style kitchen or a slab door contemporary one. By focusing on the edges, you may be able to “edge-out” the competition.

Consider some of the following tips:

  • Take a fresh look at materials you are familiar with – and identify those you are not.
  • Set aside time to complete a thorough research project so you understand the details, costs, use, care and installation recommendations for new materials.
  • Then, spend time at the computer or at your drafting board to create special finishing touches to the project’s surfacing specifications before you propose it to your prospective client.

That small countertop edge change or the backsplash details could very well be the difference between the client saying “yes,” to you, rather than “I need to go home and think about it,” or, “Your price is too high.”

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.