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Surface Strength

Kitchen countertop trends demand highly functional workspaces with individualized style and pizazz.

authors Elizabeth Richards 

Kitchen work surfaces must be durable and easy to maintain, with features that contribute to the functionality of the space. But as kitchens are increasingly opened up and incorporated into other living spaces, these surfaces must also make a striking statement about the homeowner’s individual sense of style.

“Livability is having a greater and greater influence on what homeowners select when they’re designing a space – for countertops and beyond,” says Lorenzo Marquez, v.p. of marketing for Cosentino North America based in Stafford, TX. “In addition to the demand for durability and livability, homeowners and designers alike are embracing countertops as a way to make a statement with visual texture that contributes to the aesthetic of the space,” he says. “Regardless of price point, homeowners are looking for a countertop surface that resonates with their personal design, rather than a cookie-cutter copy of the neighbor’s remodel,” he adds.

Katie Congress, North American residential marketing manager for Corian and Zodiaq at DuPont Building Innovations in Wilmington, DE, says consumers are using their kitchens as multipurpose rooms more than ever before. “Because of that, it’s important to have kitchen counters that create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, in addition to being durable for high traffic,” she says.

Top trends for countertops include durability and the addition of practical features; an increased interest in the natural look of stone and wood; more mixing and matching of materials for creative design options, and the incorporation of islands, waterfall edging and plenty of texture. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

MIX IT UP
The desire to project personal style opens up a world of possibility throughout the kitchen, allowing designers to create unique and individual designs that stand out. The use of mixed materials in a countertop allows even more room for creativity.

Designers and homeowners are pairing various countertop elements – thickness, color, materials – within the same space to create visual interest and custom appeal to express individuality, says Stephen Becker, v.p. of sales & marketing at Hanwha Surfaces in Atlanta, GA.

“Material combinations are very popular right now,” agrees Congress. “Solid surface and quartz make a great combination. In the kitchen, you can match a quartz countertop with a solid surface tiled backsplash. You get the look of tile, without the maintenance involved.”

Maggie Amir, director of trade marketing for Van Nuys, CA-based Caesarstone USA says designs are incorporating anything designers and architects can imagine – wood, metal with stone, glass and more.

Denise Grothouse, chief brand officer at Grothouse Inc. in Germansville, PA, says this mixing of materials might show up as stone or metal countertops on the perimeter and wood islands, or even islands that have multiple materials. Exotic and unique woods are showing up more often, and the integration of metal elements is also in high demand, she adds.

Marie-Claude Brisset, consultant for ThinkGlass in Boisbriand, Quebec, Canada says she often sees requests for artistic applications, where glass artist Michel Mailhot incorporates unique artwork into the glass countertop application. Clear crystal glass is the firm’s most popular, she says, due to the addition of LED lighting that adds ambiance to the design.

INCORPORATING ISLANDS
Home size and kitchen square footage dictate whether certain things are possible, but manufacturers agree that, if space allows, an island will be included in the kitchen design. These islands are serving as a central focal point, offering a space for eating, entertaining, prep work or homework.

“Homeowners want to create a functional kitchen space to use every day, that is spacious and well-designed for entertaining and hosting. The use of a large kitchen island as a conversation hub and informal eating area is continuing due to the popularity of an open floor plan throughout the first level,” says Summer Kath, senior v.p. of business development at Le Sueur, MN-based Cambria. She adds that both double islands and oversized islands are showing up in homes that have the available space.

Amir says these islands can sometimes be 15 to 20 ft. long, depending on the size of the home. In large homes, she adds, there will typically be a very dominant island in the kitchen.

“The kitchen island remains a key element within the heart of the more traditional home, and these areas are becoming larger and more functional as a result,” says Marquez. To meet the demand for larger, seamless islands, Cosentino offers oversized slabs in its Silestone and Dekton lines, he notes.

Even in smaller homes, the kitchen area is increasingly important, and an island may be an essential element. Gerri Chmiel, North America residential design lead for Formica Corp. in Cincinnati, OH, says, “Although home sizes are shrinking, partly because of the urbanization trend, kitchens are becoming a larger part of the home, taking on more roles. With shrinking home sizes, there may not be a formal dining space or breakfast nook, and we’re seeing a trend of islands incorporating eating spaces to make up for this.”

FUNCTIONAL FEATURES
The functionality of surface space is as important as the appearance. With a rise in cooking shows and increased interest in cooking at home, the space is being used more than ever.

“Cooking at home is an increasingly popular pastime, so integrated butcher blocks and food prep surfacing have become more prevalent,” says Grothouse. “Using wood for seating areas is also increasing functionality for a lot of consumers because designers are realizing that stone is cold to the touch and customers prefer the warmth and forgiveness of wood surfaces for seating.”

“This year, we’ve been seeing a clear move to practical features for countertops and backsplashes,” adds Chmiel. These include new storage solutions, modular tops and moveable elements to help individualize the kitchen space.

“Countertops are becoming modular, where a framework or tray is provided to slip in modular elements such as a wine cooler, wooden cutting board, induction hob and dish drainers. Scales for weighing and charging are integrated into the countertop. At the same time, we are taking advantage of the vertical space of the backsplash – leveraging this space to store utensils, spices and knives,” she says.

Sally Chavez, senior designer for Wilsonart in Temple, TX, says, “Specific features that are being introduced in countertops that increase the functionality include features such as wireless charging areas, where homeowners can place their devices for charging, or appliances for healthy eating advice such as ‘The Countertop,’ which aims to make the kitchen much smarter without replacing any of the appliances you already own.”

“With the rise in connectivity, consumers always want to be able to access their phones, fully charged,” says Congress. The recently introduced Corian Charging Surface allows for wireless charging through the countertop via a transmitter, hidden from view, which uses induction technology.

NATURAL APPEARANCE
A natural look holds high appeal for consumers and designers, but natural materials often require more maintenance than the consumer wants to deal with. Options like quartz and laminate are allowing for a natural stone look and feel with minimal maintenance.

“As consumers learned more about the maintenance needed for granite, it opened up a window for products that resemble natural stone, and have the movement you see in natural stone, but are much easier to maintain,” says Congress.

Quartz is enjoying a rise in popularity due to its durability, easy maintenance and endless finish possibilities. Becker says professionals and consumers are being better educated about the benefits of quartz over some other surfacing materials. “Its advantage is a strong combination of sophisticated design and product performance that is fueling the increasing demand,” he notes. He adds that marble is still in high demand, but is a much more sensitive product. “It tends to stain and break easily, which makes it a difficult material for a countertop application. Consumers are recognizing quartz as a visually viable alternative,” he says.

“With kitchens becoming the focal point of today’s popular open floor formats, consumers are drawn to the durability and sanitary benefits of engineered quartz,” agrees Emily Holle, director of trend & design national marketing for M S International, Inc. in Austell, GA. “Quartz is impervious to bacteria, is the most durable countertop material that has withstood the test of time and offers no-compromise design options for any budget.”

Kath agrees that quartz has become increasingly popular as homeowners gain information on the advantages of the material. “Residential clients have wanted more functional natural stone options for a long time, where the beauty of the stone is matched with performance and durability,” she says.

Wood – whether natural or an engineered product that offers a similar appearance – is also in high demand, according to Grothouse, who says walnut is the top choice, usually complementing classic white kitchen cabinets. “Reclaimed woods are also beautiful options that are regularly specified and environmentally conscious,” she notes.

Chmiel believes that the wood look resonates with young homeowners who respond to textured materials and reclaimed wood surfaces that provide a connection to nature. “Oxidized and weathered woods with silver-gray undertones are exploding in residential applications since they work so well with grays and neutrals,” she says. “And, with painted cabinetry on the rise, homeowners are free to use wood designs on the countertop.”

Chavez adds, “Wood-look countertops are trending right behind quartz these days. Whether butcher block, reclaimed wood or chunky slab looks, wood countertops offer an earthy, organic feel in the kitchen. This is something that can be achieved with laminate for a fraction of the price and upkeep.”

Concrete countertops are also gaining popularity, Chavez states, but notes that the real thing, just like natural stone, requires regular maintenance and sealing. For that reason, laminate and quartz manufacturers are including the concrete look among their options to provide the look without the maintenance concerns.

DIVERSE AESTHETICS
With the variety of materials, colors, finishes and edging options available today, consumers can have exactly the look that works for them at many different price points. “Research shows that homeowners are drawn to surfacing options that appeal to their personal style, and that they’re looking to showcase their individuality and unique tastes,” says Chmiel.

Favored edge designs are sophisticated and simple, rather than fussy or ornate. Many manufacturers see a demand for a thicker edge as well.

“We’re seeing more clean lines and minimalistic design in edge profile selections, with clients increasingly opting for waterfall and mitered edges,” says Kath. “Waterfall edges bring a sophisticated, artistic design element, making the counters a stunning visual focal point.”

Holle agrees: “We are also seeing the trend of waterfall edge installations becoming more mainstream, requiring larger slabs and book-matched edges.” She adds that a flat edge is becoming the norm, with waning interest in elaborate designs.

Chavez says that edge profiles support the style of the space they’re being used in. “The intricate detail of an ogee or the all-purpose bullnose edge works well in traditional spaces. The eased edge or the beveled work is great for contemporary spaces,” she explains.

In glass, Brisset is seeing more requests for 3″- and 4″-thick applications. “People are looking for a material that is noble and sophisticated at the same time, making our thermoformed glass applications the ideal choice. In addition, it offers incomparable brightness to any room and design,” she says.

Textured finish options and interesting patterning are also important to current trends. Holle sees a growing interest in alternate finish options at the high end, and honed and brushed choices currently have strong momentum. “In high-end quartzite and Italian White Marbles, honed finishes are becoming the norm rather than the exception,” she says. With this move toward matte finishes, there’s increased interest in naturally matte surfaces such as soapstone and limestone, she notes.

“Textured surfaces featuring hand planing, distressing and wire brushing are also requested in modern and transitional designs,” adds Grothouse.

“Visual texture is a must, but in keeping with the demand for livability, the surface must be easy to clean and maintain. On this same note, we are seeing thicknesses vary depending on personal design preference, but edges remain simple, either mitered or eased, for timelessness,” says Marquez. The scale of a pattern across the slab is increasing, he adds, in direct response to the evolution of kitchen design. “A larger island, for example, is a blank canvas where a slab with larger veining used in its entirety (or close to it) can serve as a stunning focal point,” he says.

Becker adds, “There is a continual demand for sophisticated designs with veining and movement in the overall pattern.” In the residential market, he notes, there is a shift toward heavier, more stylized veining in the newest collections across the countertop industry.

When it comes to color, whites and grays are still on top. “White surfaces complement any other design aspect within the space – the cabinet, backsplash, flooring – it goes with everything,” Amir states.

“Whites and grays are dominant across all price points and materials with a strong movement to colors that mix warm and cool colors together – like Taj Mahal or Chakra Beige,” says Holle.

“White remains the best seller across the industry,” agrees Becker.  “Designers cannot get enough of shades, tones or variations of white.” He adds that, in metro areas, there is also demand for more contemporary colors like grays and taupes that fit into a more industrial aesthetic.

Congress sees grays evolving into darker tones that convey a touch of prestige and authority. “Grays and whites continue to be popular, however there is a global trend across segments toward dark blues, veering towards black,” she concludes.

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