When it comes to kitchen design, most customers play it safe. While there are an endless number of cabinet finishes and paint colors, white remains the most popular choice. Stainless steel and black still trump any colors when it comes to appliances. And, while countertops come in all different materials, colors and textures, it’s the neutral granite and quartz offerings that lead the way.
There is no doubt that spectacular kitchens are created using these staples of the industry every day. The pop of color, the interesting texture and the pieces that draw the eye are often left to things that are temporary, such as paint color, decorative elements and lighting.
But, for those who are more adventurous with regard to their design sensibilities, a world of options abound. And homeowners who want to make a real statement can look to creative countertops as a way to create drama in their kitchens.
“Generally speaking, countertop selection is initially driven by the client,” states Ken Kelly, CKD, CBD, CR and principal of Kitchen Designs by Ken Kelly in Sag Harbor, NY. He believes that at least 85 percent of the time, durability, functionality and ease of maintenance override most of the more exotic or unusual choices when it comes to countertops.
When determining the type of countertop to be used in a kitchen, the most obvious question to ask the client is about the potential usage of the countertop, comments Karen Williams, ASID, principal and designer, St. Charles of New York in New York, NY. “How often is it going to be used, do they care about maintenance of the countertop material, who is going to be using it are all important questions,” she states.
She notes that, most often, there isn’t one countertop surface that’s best. “Usually a combination of countertop materials is a better option,” she reports. And, putting the countertops in the right locations within the kitchen design makes all of the countertop surfaces work, she adds.
Karen Kassen, CMKBD, Allied ASID, principal and designer, Kitchens Unlimited in Memphis, TN likes to mix materials in a design to create focus areas and to not take away from the rest of the kitchen by having too much of a good thing.
And, that provides room to play with the available surface options, colors and materials.
Kelly notes that, when a designer gets a client who is looking for more of a “wow” factor or a conversation piece, or certainly just a focal point in the room, “they are willing to explore countertop options and what the risks and rewards are for going outside of that safety box of quartz and granite. Once they are willing to go there, then you have a host of directions you can go in, and a range of different materials you can use.”
He adds that, when he finds someone willing to do something a little different, they usually look to materials such as wood, marble, concrete, glass or metal. “People are looking for something particularly unique for the texture, for the color, for the patina,” he reports.
“When you find that customer, it opens up a wide spectrum, and they can do something particularly unique and different and special,” reports Kelly. “You can play around with those materials – the thicknesses, the edge details and the alternatives within those materials.”
Of course, Kelly adds that while the client may appear to want something out of the ordinary, they must be willing to accept that it’s not going to be perfect, “because materials like wood, concrete and metal are going to wear in such a way that you’re going to see the wear,” he states. It needs to be part of their personality, to accept the pros and cons of these types of materials, he adds.
Wood, in particular, will show its wear – a desired characteristic for many who choose this material.
“Wood will not stay showroom perfect,” warns Kelly. “It is a live product, and it is going to show wear and tear, have a nick, get a scratch or a ding. But, a gently used wood countertop adds a lot of the character to a design, as well as warmth. And what can be done with thickness and edge detail only enhances the beauty.”
The wood arena is almost endless in terms of specialty woods, how the graining is done and the shape of the edges, he continues.
One client that Val Wilson, project manager for Terrell Goeke, Inc., in Chicago, IL worked with not only wanted a wood countertop for a peninsula in the kitchen that was to be used as a bar top, but wanted the piece to have a living edge. “It was up to us to find what they had in mind,” he comments.
A piece of English wych elm from The Grothouse Lumber Co. “fit the bill really well,” Wilson notes, adding, “the clients loved it, we loved it and it was the right size.”
“Just like an island, a peninsula can be viewed from all sides, so it needed to work well in the space,” he offers. Located between the kitchen and dining area, the counter plays well with the contemporary kitchen, which features flat front doors in dark oak and burled walnut and brown antique granite that resembles an almost charcoal gray color.
“It’s very sculptural, and juts out into the middle of the space, so it becomes almost like a piece of art, as well as a functional countertop for a bar area,” Wilson reports.
Just as there are issues with wood, with the use of a natural stone, it is important to find out from the client if an inconsistency in the material will be a problem for them, stresses Kassen.
“With the current popularity of real marble in kitchens, it’s important to point out to the client that marble will etch as it is used,” notes Kassen. “If the circles and spots caused by the etching bother the person, then they might not be a good candidate to use marble in their kitchen.”
Williams also notes the growing interest in the use of marble in the kitchen – white marbles in particular. But, she agrees that “marble can show wear, so it is not an ideal surface for everyone.”
Williams has capitalized on the interest in marble by using it in other, less-used applications in the kitchen and coordinating it with Pyrolave countertops – a lavastone – in a platinum shade. “That way, you don’t need to worry about maintenance. Marble can be integrated on the backsplash, and the light gray countertops go so seamlessly with the marble that you don’t even realize that there is a change of materials until you look at it closely,” she remarks. “I then use marble counters in a coffee bar or in a perimeter area so that the main workhorse of the kitchen, such as the island, is the more durable Pyrolave.”
Of course, engineered stone or quartz counters will provide the durability needed for main areas of the kitchen, and each year the assortment of colors and patterns pushes the envelope.
One of Kassen’s clients “fell in love with a piece of material that was on one of our showroom displays, and the whole kitchen was planned around it,” she reports. Everything was selected to work with the countertop and highlight it.
Kassen wanted to make the piece, made from CaesarStone Concetto material, the most special thing in the kitchen. “By raising the top and cantilevering it around the back side of the island space, it became the center of the large room as well as an eating bar for the couple’s three children.”
“This client wanted something unique, something that no one else had and something that would provoke conversation,” Kassen offers.
When it comes to creating countertops as pieces of art, glass is a favorite material for kitchen and bath designers. The selection of shapes and colors are almost endless, and the natural shine and sparkle create a wow factor unlike any other.
According to Hannah Niki, designers’ assistant at Studio 3G Glass in Coquitlam, BC, Canada, most clients who come to the showroom are looking for a unique product.
One glass countertop offering that has become very popular with the company’s clients is the “tidal series,” which highlights a very popular sandblasting technique for glass. “It not only adds texture and variability to the glass countertop, but it also makes it a one-of-a-kind art piece,” comments Niki.
The Vadim Project, a home remodel that the company worked on, was very unusual in the sense that the customers incorporated the same pattern used on their glass countertop throughout their home, including the exterior windows. “They lived by the ocean and had an ocean view from their bath,” Niki explains. “They incorporated the Tidal pattern with custom chosen textures.”
Niki notes that it was a challenge to stay consistent with the pattern throughout the house, yet not be too repetitive. “The homeowners personalized their home with the glass products.”
A SHOT OF COLOR
While materials and textures are often attractive to customers looking for something different, it is color that influences the leap that many take when incorporating a countertop.
While Williams gravitates to working with Pyrolave often because of its durability, she also capitalizes on the fact that it “gives me the design flexibility to create a great kitchen because I can have custom colors made. I can play it down and have a subtle, beautiful color that will go with the rest of the permanent materials in the room, or I can choose to have a great pop of color on an island or a breakfast area,” she reports. “It’s quarried like granite or marble, but then it’s fireglazed, which is where you get the color. It has a look that resembles porcelain, except that it’s extremely durable,” she reports.
On one project, Williams customized the color blue for the Pyrolave countertop in the kitchen, which was located in a condo on the beach in Miami. “When you looked outside, you had the blue water and, in the kitchen, the blue lavastone. It has that beautiful blue color, rather than just looking like a blue countertop.”
“One project that we did where the client really went outside of the safety zone was a kitchen with a lime green countertop, and lime green backsplash,” reports Kelly. “They were willing to go out on a limb with color and used it very, very effectively. Color always makes a bold statement when you’re willing to go out there and do something special with it.”
Red was the color choice for the wow factor in Kassen’s “Lady in Red” kitchen. “The client had a painting in the room that they wanted to play upon in the new kitchen design; they wanted to pull from the colors in the painting. This led us to use the red accent top at one end of the room and the red island cabinets centrally located in the kitchen,” she explains. For the contrasting island top, “we chose a natural granite that had charcoal grays and blacks and found a glass tile that repeated the circular pattern of the island top on the walls with the backsplash.”
The result was a dramatic kitchen with continuity throughout, and just the right “wow” the clients were looking for.