Living on the Edge

Innovation in countertops means equal parts function, style and imagination.

When it comes to unique countertop applications, the secret seems to be, quite simply, “dare to be different.”

These are the sentiments of Mark Rosenhaus, CKD, for New York, NY-based Rosenhaus Design Group, who offers: “The more different the application, the more interesting it is for people.”

Indeed, with the individualized tastes of luxury homeowners come a slew of available style options as manufacturers and fabricators try to keep up with the ever-evolving tastes of consumers.

In fact, there seems to be an “anything goes” attitude in regard to countertops, that is, as long as they reflect the client’s personality.

“There are many different materials and colors [available] so that you can easily satisfy the functional [needs]. The hard part is to get it the way they want it because most people can’t articulate their emotions,” Rosenhaus adds.

While trends vary widely, today’s counters seem to be leaning toward cleaner edges for a Euro-inspired look, an eclectic mixture of materials and colors and even some recycled content, proving that it’s possible to be eco-friendly and user friendly at the same time.

Nancy Moon, owner of Beckony Kitchens & Baths in Colorado Springs, CO, notes: “What we’re finding is [clients wanting] different countertops for different areas. So we’re doing a lot of wood tops, including teak, for instance.”

However, innovation does not only come from style, adds Patricia Gaylor, interior designer for Little Falls, NJ-based Patricia Gaylor Interiors.

Gaylor, who specializes in green design and kitchen and bath renovation, offers: “The main concerns are in regard to heat- and stain-resistance. People are very concerned about those issues.”

Moon notes: “Ultimately, the clients who want to spend the money want something that is ‘them’ and reflects their individuality.”

Old Calcutta

For Dawn Wattles, AKBD, design consultant at Indianapolis, IN-based Cabinetry Ideas, a recent countertop project took full advantage of her client’s love of marble.

“We chose Calcutta Gold Select for the countertop by the sink and Blue Pearl granite on the island, with marble again on the perimeter. While we haven’t seen much marble, it’s definitely coming back,” she says. “This project was driven by the fact that the client just loved the old Roman period and the marble reminded him of that feeling.”

She continues: “I steered him away from using marble near the cooktop area and got him back to granite on that area. We were worried about the heat-resistant properties, but also the durability. We also wanted to conceal the cooktop more and were including a beautiful white marble. If we were to drop a black cooktop in there then it would show up like a sore thumb.”

She concludes: “He would have been happy to do marble on the entire thing because he loved that marble, but it wouldn’t have functioned properly if used that way. It was a lot easier to make it blend, and it created a more unique look.”

Form and Function

When it comes to countertop form and function, there is definitely a sense of chicken-versus-the-egg syndrome, designers note.

Moon offers: “Overall what we’re seeing is a variety of countertop choices based on functional and aesthetic needs. So for instance, we will install a wood top for warmth, like a black walnut distressed countertop, because people want something that is warmer near where they sit. However, if you put a wood top next to a sink, you’re going to have to fix it later.

“So, once you get past the way it looks, then you get to the way it performs,” she says. “Some people want to know right up front how they have to care for a material, or if they have to seal it. Kitchens are fine tuned to the individual – function reigning.”

To that end, she recalls a project she did for a professional chef.

“On either side of the range we used stainless steel countertops because they provide a smooth, sanitary surface for easy prep and clean up. The butcher block top was placed directly across from the range to allow ample chopping space,” she points out. “To complement that look, black granite was used adjacent to the butcher block as well as on the raised bar top,” she adds.

All edge profiles were kept simple so that clean up was easier as well.

“The black granite is also low maintenance while adding an elegant beauty to the look,” she says.

“For people who want a white countertop, but are afraid of one speck of dust showing up, then [deciding between form and function] can certainly become a problem,” adds Rosenhaus.

He concludes: “Ultimately, you want to make sure the countertop wears for legitimate reasons. Have it reflect yourself.”

Multiple Options

As much as designers and fabricators can devise is what is available in terms of materials, Moon notes.

“As a designer, I certainly don’t feel like I am limited anymore, because there are so many things to choose from today. No longer do you have to do everything the exact same way throughout the kitchen,” she points out.

While again referencing the black walnut tops, Moon points out that the look can be buttressed by virtually any other material, including granite and Shirestone, for example.

“More people are definitely moving toward the honed finishes as opposed to the shiny finishes,” adds Rosenhaus. “People are trying to get away from the shiny looks, so they are going toward slate, which is honed, as well as sandstone and limestone.”

He also describes somewhat of a “signature” approach he uses on many countertop projects.

“I think of slate as sculpture because I mold the bowl with the countertop. One recent project in particular has a bowl that is the same as the countertop, while [others] feature slate with a stainless bowl,” he says.

He continues: “Hopefully, the people who are doing the multi-material pieces are not just doing it gratuitously because they want to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the design.”

To highlight the possibilities of countertop materials, Moon recounts one recent countertop project that she completed.

“The primary challenge was that the family wanted to eat at a high bar top and wanted it to be warm like a dining table.

Therefore, we selected wood. On the rest of the kitchen we used granite. The other challenge was to find the right color because they didn’t have any budgetary constraints at all,” she notes.

Isle of Height

Another way to differentiate countertops is through the varying of surface heights – especially on islands, the designers agree.

“We’re seeing more and more of that,” says Stephen Rosenblatt, president of Petaluma, CA-based Sonoma Cast Stone, Corp. “In fact, we are working on an oval island that must be about 14-feet long. It is a huge thing and it is in a bright, white concrete. It is very attractive.”

Moon continues: “No longer does the client have to do something at a place that is uncomfortable for them. When they are baking, they want the height to be a little lower because they like to hold the bowl a little lower. We can fit that into the island and put a lower section [and try to] use different heights.”

Rosenblatt concludes: “The bottom line is that good designers are recognizing that the kitchen is a place to congregate, and therefore needs to be made more comfortable.”

Easy Does It

Edge treatments are also becoming less decorative in order to project a simpler, cleaner look.

“More often than not it’s an eased edge,” says Rosenhaus.

Rosenblatt agrees: “Typically, just the straight edges are the most popular with a slight radius on top.”

He continues: “We do a lot of ogee edging and beveled edging, as well as edging with metal put into it. We have also done some edging with the angle on it for a hard, industrial look. It is a metal angle all the way around with the concrete matching at the seam exactly at the same level. It all becomes very level looking.”

Gaylor also sees the same treatment being requested by her clients.

“An eased edge is all I ever do as a designer. It has a very plain, slab-like look to it. I generally try to shy away from anything that is [overly] curvy or fancy,” she says.

Moon adds: “On the wood tops, we do anywhere from 2″ to 3″ edges because that big, beefy wood look is really popular.”

To complement the look, other areas of the top are typically done in granite at 1-1/4″, she notes.

“Bigger edges are popular because people like drama,” she says.

Wattles agrees: “We’re finding a lot of requests to go to a 2″, and sometimes even a 3″ top.”

Moon concludes: “There is much more of the simple edging being done right now, especially with the clean-lined look going on so much. The eased, 90-degree edge creates a very clean and very simple looking edge. It is very consistent with the clean-lined cabinetry and European-styling we are seeing taking effect overall.”

Colorful Palette

One of the fastest-growing ways to create innovative countertops is through the use of color, designers agree.

“There are some bright colors available out there, and all of those colors bring out different feelings,” Rosenhaus offers. “So, as designers, we have to ask ourselves whether the palette is colorful enough or if it is meant to be more monochromatic. Or, perhaps it should be something more subdued, [because] you also don’t want to turn somebody off because you decided to put a [bright] green countertop in there.”

Moon agrees: “Color is becoming a big factor and [people] are learning that counters don’t have to be neutral anymore.”

To that end, she cites more subtle versions of reds, oranges, and gold among the popular tones being selected by clients.

“Ultimately, what happens is that the countertop becomes part of that overall palette,” she concludes.

Going Green

For Gaylor, green-based countertop applications are rapidly growing in demand among high-end kitchen clientele.

“Now, more than ever, I get requests from my clients to try and source out local materials because that is one of the main criteria,” she offers. “The idea is to use things that are local to your area so that you are not expending a lot of energy to get things from overseas.”

To that end, she adds that, “The trick is trying to find innovative materials that come from recycled content. Or you can select natural metals, such as aluminum. Aluminum is definitely a hot material right now.”

Rosenhaus quickly points out that choosing green-based countertop materials does not necessarily mean that aesthetics
will be sacrificed.

“I recently had a client who decided to put Icestone [a recycled-content material] into his apartment because he wanted to have some sort of pizzazz, and he wanted to sell it,” he says. “It is a small kitchen with medium-dark cherry cabinets. When you have a smaller kitchen where the appliances and the number of cabinets are pretty much equal, like this one, it then typically comes down to color.”

For this particular project, the client chose a color scheme featuring beige with a touch of green, “to give it some breadth of life,” Rosenhaus says.

Gaylor also had a very similar experience with an eco-based countertop in a master bath suite, she recalls.

“The Icestone countertop was made from a combination of recycled bottle glass and concrete, which made it is easy to fabricate as well,” she notes.

“We complemented that look with glass tile border in the shower and mosaic glass tiles on the backsplash, which also features partially recycled content,’ she adds.

Tying the look together as well is a vanity made from FSC-certified wood, a waterborne finish with low VOC, and faux slate porcelain floor tile, she says.

For Rosenhaus, this type of project reflects the possibilities of countertops, especially when the choice of materials truly reflects the unique personality of the client.

“I often tell my clients to do what feels good, and warn them not to do something non-committal because they think it’s supposed to be ‘correct,’” he points out.

“In the end, you’ve got to make a dynamic statement with the countertop project – but you also have to remember that it has to be fun,” he concludes.

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