Countertops aren’t necessarily the first element selected in any given kitchen project. That coveted lead is often bestowed upon cabinetry. But countertop decisions come swiftly thereafter, with their prominent status rightfully justified, given the important contributions they make to the aesthetics and function of a space, as well as the influence they wield over defining and refining subsequent selections.
“Countertops are important to the overall aesthetic of the kitchen, dictating the backsplash tile as well as other ‘jewelry’ and accessories such as lighting, and potentially even the flooring that grounds the space,” says Dana Mowat, president, interior designer, Valia Design, in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
“A countertop acts as the nucleus to the rest of the kitchen,” she continues. “Cohesively, all the planes, including the ceiling and floor, are important. But the countertop is the middle plane that is closest to eye level, and closest to where we live.”
Rachel Koepke, Allied ASID, agrees, noting that although flooring decisions sometimes sneak in ahead of countertops, they are definitely in the starting lineup. “A project usually starts with cabinets and flooring, then we layer in countertops,” says the interior designer with Rafterhouse, in Phoenix, AZ. “The fun part is finding just the right material that works with the design elements and seeing how the use of a material, such as granite versus marble, can change a kitchen.”
Focus on function
Although finding the perfect material can seem daunting given the range of options available today, many designers appreciate the variety. “As a professional in the industry, I think it’s a benefit to have so many choices,” says Nicolette Jarquin, CKD, Arcata Cabinet & Design, in Arcata, CA.
Koepke agrees, adding that those choices are getting better, too, given the availability of special stones and different cuts of granite as well as the continued advancements being made in quartz that mimics natural stone. “It’s amazing how real the quartz looks compared to the natural stone products,” she says. “The closer and closer they get to replicating natural stone, the more popular these styles are going to be.”
To help clients navigate the abundant selections, designers often begin a dialogue by addressing function and how clients plan to use their countertops.
“Tasks are driving surface selections more than ever,” states Scott Purswell, CKD, Dovetailed Kitchens, in Portsmouth, NH. “People used to just want granite, but now they are considering what material is most suitable for the task they want to do.”
Discussing how well a material holds up to those tasks is a critical part of that conversation.
For Kevin Swart, Chervin Kitchen & Bath, in Ontario, Canada, porosity is part of the equation. “My clients want low-maintenance materials,” he says, adding that the ability to withstand hot and cold temperatures is key, too.
“It’s important to really understand a client’s durability and cooking needs,” adds Jennifer Macdonald, owner, Jennifer Robin Interiors, in San Anselmo, CA. “If I have clients who need durable countertops, I often use marble or special-feature stone on the backsplash instead of the countertops.”
In fact, durability was an important consideration in a recent kitchen design where Macdonald mixed commercial-grade concrete with natural soapstone.
“Pairing the two materials allowed us to balance the overall design while playing to the strengths of each material,” she says.
For example, custom commercial-grade concrete perimeter countertops offer durability and versatility. “It’s something we love to use,” she says. “Because it’s a commercial-grade surface, it really stands up to the rigors of daily kitchen use. It can also be matched to any color and customized in so many ways. We love how drain boards and sinks can be carved right into it. It’s a wonderful material to work with.”
Macdonald counterbalanced the rugged concrete with natural soapstone for the kitchen’s focal-point island. “Soapstone is such an elegant material, but it’s also extremely durable,” she says. “Many people remember soapstone counters in the science labs of their youth, which held up to the extreme temperatures of Bunsen burners and the accidental spills of harsh chemicals.
“The soapstone finish can also be left raw for a beautiful soft blue/gray color, or darkened with oil to create an almost black surface,” she continues, noting that this kitchen’s raw state mirrors the palette’s warm, caramel tones used throughout the home. “Because it’s a natural stone, it’s full of beautiful veining and organic imperfections that look even better with time as the material starts to take on its own natural patina.”
Purswell also has clients who appreciate the beauty and durability of soapstone as well as its timelessness, the latter of which was a particularly important characteristic for a recent remodel where his clients built upon a bright, coastal theme for their kitchen, mixing soapstone on the island and perimeter with white Shaker cabinets and a beveled subway tile backsplash.
“We’re in a historical area and you just can’t get more classic than soapstone. It has a built-in patina that can’t quite be duplicated,” he explains, adding that there was even a time when it was mined in parts of Vermont and New Hampshire by settlers who cut their own slabs, giving it additional local value. “It has that ‘old-timey’ feel because people have been using it for a couple hundred years.”
While durability is often top of mind, there’s no denying that a countertop can make a space feel special because of its beauty, often via a stunning color and/or dramatic veining.
“The ambiance of a room is greatly influenced by the materials selected,” says Julie Bradshaw, Bradshaw Designs, in San Antonio, TX. “Since countertops are a large percentage of a kitchen, their pattern, texture and material greatly influence the look and feel. For example, Calacatta Gold marble feels much different than a modern, translucent glass countertop.”
Color, along with durability, was one reason why she chose Sea Pearl quartzite for the island and perimeter countertops as well as the backsplash for a recent kitchen project. “Quartzite is a very dense natural stone that not only resists staining, but also adds visual interest,” she says, drawing attention to the backsplash that was book matched to create a dramatic focal point above the cooktop. “Each slab is unique, creating a one-of-a-kind piece of art. In this kitchen, the Sea Pearl quartzite adds rugged beauty, which was perfect for blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces.”
Mowat also likes to use countertops as pieces of art, when appropriate, such as in a recent kitchen remodel where she featured Delirium quartzite. Its deep layers of purples, greens, blues and blacks complement the existing van Gogh reproduction that covers the expanse of a nearby wall. “It’s a good example of using the countertop as art in a space,” she says. “There is nothing average about the material, and it found its perfect home…paired with the Starry Starry Night mural!”
The designer gave the countertop a unique contour as well, personalizing it to its space and function. “We designed the shape for how my clients use the island,” she says. “It’s based on how many people they wanted to seat, as well as clearances for flow. It really works for this eclectic house.”
Mowat also chose to be dramatic in her own kitchen remodel. When she spotted a slab of vibrant Palomino quartzite, she knew it would be perfect for the perimeter and island, the latter of which was designed to be a focal point.
“The island top was a defining finish that sparked the look of the space,” she says.
Initially, Mowat admits she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. “I knew I wanted something with teal incorporated somehow,” she explains, drawing attention to the hue used throughout the kitchen. Her mid-century, split-level home also features caramel-colored teak slat ceilings and California Gold slate floor tiles that offer a mix of caramel, dark charcoal and blue hues.
“The material on the island needed to be a show stopper between the ceilings and floor…it needed to be something that married the two and spoke to both planes,” she continues. “To me, this Palomino quartzite made sense. I also thought it somewhat resembles a cracked-open geode, which is a common pattern in mid-century-style furniture and fabric. It’s ‘loud,’ but it’s a perfect blend that works in this space.”
The designer further enhanced the island with a mitered edge detail that heightens the stature and beauty of the large island. “It gives the illusion of a thick chunk of stone set upon cabinetry,” she says, adding that this look is becoming popular with clients as well.
Color is often a characteristic that comes into play for Swart, who tends to gravitate toward dark countertop materials that provide contrast against white cabinetry in the cottage- style homes that are well-liked by his clients.
For a recent project he chose leathered Titanium granite for the countertops and backsplash.
“Cottage designs and granite go well together,” he says of the kitchen designed in collaboration with Hilltop Interiors. “As a natural stone, it brings the outside in. And this particular granite is always interesting because it almost looks like petrified wood.”
The deeply colored Titanium granite was also specified for another client who wanted to create a kitchen with a cottage-y design theme accented with modern, rustic elements. However, after Swart showed them a sample of Dekton’s Trilium, they quickly changed their minds, favoring its modern appeal with a matte finish.
“My clients fell in love with the Dekton,” he says, noting its resemblance to a rusted piece of metal. “They wanted something different than the everyday kitchen, and they wanted to keep it simple and clean. The Dekton brings in the modern part the client was after while the white painted maple Shaker cabinetry keeps it simple and clean.”
Swart added a waterfall edge to the island – further showcasing the metal effect on the vertical plane – and coordinated the Trilium with Dekton’s Makai for the backsplash. “It looks like barn board,” he says, noting ‘graining’ that runs throughout the slab. “It has a bit of texture, too.”
Personal decisions often dictate a countertop choice rather than simply following what’s ‘in.’ However, designers do take notice of what clients tend to gravitate toward most.
For many, quartz is especially in high demand, with its popularity often tied to its durability and continually expanding range of colors, especially those that mimic natural stone.
Jarquin often suggests quartz as a first option to her clients, when budgets allow. “It offers scratch, heat and stain resistance, which is what people tend to want,” she says. “They also seem to like the veining of quartz that looks like granite and marble, especially quartz that looks like Carrara marble.
“I also get a lot of people who like the quartz with sparkles,” she continues, noting its ability to make a space feel special. “When I hear someone going crazy over a countertop, it’s usually because it has marbling, sparkles or mirrored flecks!”
The introduction of matte and satin finishes has also strengthened quartz’s popularity.
“Within the last two to three years we’ve been getting more clients who say they don’t want countertops that are shiny and polished,” says Swart, noting a swift transition. “From one summer to the next, we had one or two options in a matte finish to practically everything available in a matte finish.”
Granite has seen the same conversion to low- or no-shine finishes.
“We just aren’t seeing shiny finishes anymore,” Purswell states. “Everybody is looking for leathered or honed finishes.”
Adding texture, especially unexpected texture, is one approach Koepke uses to make a space feel special. “One of my favorite things to do is to throw in a little bit of unexpected texture,” she explains. “For example, I might use a leathered granite, or even a rough finish like concrete, in a stark white kitchen with white cabinets and lighter floors and walls. It can add and change the direction of an otherwise stark kitchen greatly.”
In fact, she used this design technique in a recent kitchen project that was focused on high contrast. As such, she chose to juxtapose leathered Indian Premium Black Satin granite alongside Caesarstone Calacatta Nuvo quartz. Both materials are set atop crisp white cabinets and feature square, mitered edges for a clean look that supports the modern farmhouse design style.
“We’re seeing a lot of all-white kitchens, and the black granite breaks up all the white,” she notes in reference to the dark perimeter countertops.
Adding a leathered finish gives the granite a hint of texture. “It isn’t expected,” she adds. “Against the smooth front cabinets and quartz, it also brings a bit of warmth into the space. We really like what it ‘says.’”
At the island, Koepke chose the light colored quartz, which is designed to mimic Calacatta marble, for its durability and ability to keep the space bright. “Marble is a popular countertop choice for our area, but our clients like the durability of quartz,” she notes.
A contrasting black cabinet sets off one end of the island, helping to solve a design challenge, but also adding interest. “The range is centered on the ridge beam, and so are the pendants above the island,” she explains. “We wanted a large island, but in order to get the size we wanted, the pendants would have looked off center. By adding the cabinet at one end, we were able to keep the pendants centered above the portion of the island topped with quartz…in a sense tricking the eye into believing the pendants are centered above the entire island.”
Koepke topped the cabinet with walnut butcher block. “We’ve used oak in the past, but the deep, warm tones of the walnut really complement the farmhouse style,” she maintains, adding that a matte clear finish sealer brings out the richness of the wood and makes it pop.
Although quartz is immensely popular, designers still use a lot of natural stone.
For Bradshaw, marble and quartzite, are ‘go-to’ recommendations. “Marble is a classic, timeless material so it will always be ‘on trend,’ and quartzite is popular because of its durability and similar appearance to marble,” she says. “When a client wants something different, we occasionally use thick glass when it’s right for the space.”
Mowat also likes to use quartzite, especially when a project can showcase it generously sized. “It is such a beautiful material to use in an expansive space because of its movement and natural integrity,” she notes. “It works very well for large islands where it doesn’t need to be cut up.”
Mowat, as well as Purswell and Koepke, is also seeing an uptick in requests for wood, especially walnut and butcher block.
Jarquin’s clients also show interest in wood, such as the custom butcher block she featured in a kitchen for her aunt.
“She wanted to keep the kitchen earth toned and very natural,” she says. “The countertop materials, as well as the maple cabinets and flooring, show her love of all things natural. Nothing is stained, and everything feels like it belongs in the house.”
The island’s locally crafted, custom butcher block top and the perimeter’s green soapstone – which top cherry and maple cabinetry, respectively – are perfect choices for accomplishing the mission.
Jarquin initially suggested walnut for the island, but its large dimension would have required a seam, which didn’t offer a desirable look. “A butcher block already has seams, so the concern was eliminated,” she says.
The mix of maple, cherry and wenge woods are all stain-free, showcasing the rich diversity of color. Laying the butcher block on the diagonal adds interest while a curved edge promotes conversation between guests seated at the island and improves flow through the kitchen while leaving adequate space for a pair of club chairs across the aisle.
Complementing the island with green soapstone furthers the connection to nature. “She really liked the earth tones,” says the designer. “I think black would have been too high of a contrast since everything else in the space is pretty soft.” ▪