Natural Abundance

Counter space encompasses more area in the kitchen, with a focus on soft, natural aesthetics and high functionality.

authors Elizabeth Richards | November 20, 2020

Ample counter space in the kitchen has always been essential. With people getting used to spending much more time at home, it’s even more important to provide the space needed. Countertop aesthetics are leaning towards a soft, natural look, with plenty of attention being given to the way these surfaces are used.

“As we spend more time in our homes, colors, textures and materials that make us feel safe and comfortable – while also allowing for function – are in high demand,” comments Gwen Petter, director of design at Wilsonart in Temple, TX. “Combinations of soft, tinted whites and neutrals partnered with textiles and materials that will create a connection with nature provide a sense of calm from the unknowns around us.”

Along with neutral tones, white is still a top choice. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no room for creativity. Summer Kath, exec. v.p. of design for Cambria in Le Sueur, MN says she believes that dark, black and bold options will also continue to grow.

“Changing countertops requires a commitment and investment, so you want to feel good about the decision for the next 10 to 20 years. We want to push the envelope with our technology and refine it so that the organic look and feel that is so popular right now is more reflective in the Cambria product,” she explains.

Surfaces are also expected to be durable enough to withstand frequent use, and concerns around sanitizing and cleanliness are at the top of homeowner’s minds. “After half a year in a pandemic, homeowners are more concerned about countertop performance and important health or safety certifications for each countertop option they consider,” offers Louis Andrade, marketing manager for Vicostone in Dallas, TX.

Other trends include a shift in materials requested, and though surface area is growing, a thinner profile is on the rise. That’s according to manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Ample Space

Kitchens have become the center of activity in many households, especially during the pandemic, and food preparation is just one of many tasks happening there. With this expanded use comes a need for more surface space to accommodate these activities. For some, that means a larger overall footprint in the kitchen, while for others additional countertop space in an island or workstation will suffice.

“These days, our kitchens are being used as home offices, school classrooms and places for our families to gather all in the same day, so homeowners are considering the functionality of their kitchens as multipurpose spaces,” reports Gerri Chmiel, residential design lead at Formica Corporation in Cincinnati, OH. “In some cases, this prompts people to seek more durable surface areas, whether that means investing in a larger or second kitchen island or adding small adjacent workstations,” she adds.

“People are requesting more surface area in the kitchen, but perhaps not more square footage for the kitchen space,” offers Andrade. “Durable surface space to complete daily tasks like cooking, working- or schooling-from-home and family activities is more important than ever.”

John Kim, director of the architectural products team at LOTTE Chemical Corporation in La Palma, CA says that LOTTE dealers are seeing a surge in jumbo islands both indoors and outdoors. “There’s also a hint of a potential trend in double islands, especially in medium- to upper-priced homes. In addition, islands are being used as a merging element between kitchens and living spaces, replacing walls,” he notes.

James Amendola, v.p. of North America for Neolith, based in Castellon, Spain agrees that islands are becoming larger and sometimes being incorporated into the kitchen as a table and working space. Neolith’s slabs run over 10′ and up to 63″ high, he says, which helps provide for those larger applications.

“People are increasing space in their kitchens as they are now being used not only for cooking, but science projects, baking, Zoom…you name it,” stresses Katie Congress, marketing manager of Corian Design at DuPont Protective Solutions, based in Wilmington, DE. “We are responding with larger slab/sheet sizes to accommodate this trend.”

Petter says that most applications require larger width material than the standard 30″ typically available on the market. To meet this demand, she says, Wilsonart eliminated the need to seam two slabs of material together with their 60″-wide sheet formats.

Exuding Warmth

Whites and grays have dominated countertop color selection in recent years, and while that is still the hottest look, there is an increasing trend towards warmer tones, veins and accents, according to Emily Holle, director of Trend & Design, MSI in Atlanta, GA.

“LOTTE dealers are witnessing a move to cabinetry reflecting simple colors and styles and use of wall colors and countertops to add elements of warmth and elegance to the kitchen,” offers Kim. There’s also an uptick in orders for earth tones, he reports, increased demand for surfaces with nature-inspired colors and patterns, and a move towards more distinct veining patterns that are wider, darker, and even veining in blue hues.

“Natural-looking wood materials add warmth to contrast the colder look of marbles and stones,” notes Petter. “Lower sheens will also continue to influence materials as they appear more organic and natural, and less shiny and hard. They create a softness to the eye that implies comfort, and a less “processed” material.”

Countertops that fit well with a warm or natural aesthetic are trending up, Andrade stresses. “Popular styles like marble-look stone, white stone and Calacatta-inspired veining have continued their dominance, while warmer hues and neutral colors have taken a greater importance in a multi-purpose space like a home kitchen,” he observes. “The initial spike in demand for new textures has slowed down, with most homeowners listing texture further down their countertop wish list in favor of style and performance,” he adds.

Kath states that while white marble-like looks are not going away, there will be a particular emphasis on white marbles that are unique and different. “We have seen Skara Brae and Bentley – with standout veining and movement – rise up the charts because they add a little bit of boldness, but not too much. We have been getting creative with white in ways we have not before, like with the 20 new designs we just launched this year,” she reports.

Worry-Free Upkeep

Easy maintenance and an ability to effortlessly keep countertops clean and germ-free have always been important. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s an even larger consideration, manufacturers say. Durable surfaces that stand up to heavy use are also essential.

“Now that we are home more and using not only our kitchens more, but all rooms more, we need surfaces that are easy to use, clean and maintain,” says Petter. “How a product holds up after repetitive cleanings, and the reliability of the material over extended periods of time, is more important than ever.”

“Materials that are easy to maintain, resistant to discoloration from bleach and other disinfectants and have a non-porous design with antibacterial properties are in greater demand,” notes Kim. “Quartz is the clear leader in surface selections that demand superior functionality, durability and ease of maintenance. And quartz looks great.”

“Homeowners are also drawn to surfaces that do not require regular sealing or ongoing maintenance,” adds Chmiel. “As homeowners become more conscious of germs and cleanability, solid surface offers a viable option for kitchen and bath surfaces – and it’s not hard to understand why. It is seamless, nonporous, highly durable and repairable. It is also water- and fire-resistant so it can be used for a variety of horizontal and vertical applications, including sinks and wet walls. Versatility is key,” she says.

Andrade stresses that maintenance is an important conversation that is coming up more often with both distributors and customers. “Setting realistic expectations for any durable good is important to ensure a quality consumer experience, and consumers appreciate honest and helpful communication regarding the advantages and limits of each countertop material,” he remarks.

Amendola concurs that, especially with the pandemic, more and more people are looking for low maintenance products where they don’t have to worry about staining, etching with acidic foods or sealing the countertop, which introduces another chemical into the material. “This definitely gives the homeowner peace of mind,” he says.

Tom Van Daele, U.S. public relations manager for Antolini, based in Verona, Italy, reports that the company has responded to the growing need for protection and sanitization in indoor spaces with its patented process, Azerocare, which increases the performance of their natural stones, making them healthier and more hygienic.

“Antolini’s Azerocare treatment is the first of its kind to offer polished marbles, onyxes and soft quartzites full protection from etching and staining caused by contact with acid-based food elements,” he reports. “Azerocare also provides water-repellant and oil-repellent protection from staining and etching caused by oil, fat and greasy elements.”

Unassuming profiles

Simple, clean lines and thin profiles are on the rise, manufacturers say. “Homeowners are increasingly seeking more modern and minimalist countertop designs with soft, ethereal looks,” reports Chmiel. “In fact, this insight was key to the design process for the new patterns in our Everform Solid Surface line, which launched in October. Previously known as Formica Solid Surfacing, we added eight new patterns to this collection to reflect minimalist designs in subtle patterns and monochromatic tones for broad residential use.”

“Several years back, rough-cut stone edges that exuded the image of substance and heft, and traditional curvy edges, used to be the norm,” Holle offers. “Today, it’s the opposite: simple is king…and thin is in.” More and more people are adopting eased edge finishes, she says, particularly for quartz and porcelain slabs.

Congress adds that, across the industry, they see trends toward thinner material, “naked” clean edges, and mitered edges. “Naked edges use colors with less movement and often resemble a body color, while mitered edges use colors with veining and movement. Waterfall edges also remain popular in large kitchens,” she notes.

Kath believes thinner profiles will become “de rigueur.” In response, Cambria will soon launch a 6mm, ultra-thin and lighter option that offers the same performance, she reports.

Chmiel states that they’re seeing a greater interest in specialty options for edges, such as Bullnose, which is curved at the top and bottom for a smooth finish, and Ogee, which is sculpted for an elegant look. Formica offers three edge options: “a classic flat edge, post-formed with a specialty edge or an edging treatment such as our IdealEdge,” she says.

Material Shifts

For several years, quartz has been the leading material for countertops, and demand remains high, even though some manufacturers are seeing a shift towards other materials, such as porcelain, as well.

“Quartz is clearly the leading surface choice because of the wide selection of beautiful colors and patterns, as well as the surface’s low maintenance requirements and excellent durability,” explains Kim.

Andrade notes, “Stone fabricators and countertop retailers still turn to quartz for a low-maintenance natural stone look that is through-bodied and easy to clean.” He adds that the technology behind quartz has also continued to evolve. “Today, the best quartz brands provide realistic marble-, granite- and quartzite-looks alongside exotic interpretations inspired by nature that were unimaginable 10 years ago,” he says.

While Holle stresses that quartz is, without question, the top material requested, she adds that MSI is seeing some early rise in demand for Stile, its line of porcelain slabs, and many also love natural quartzite. Technology has changed the landscape of how the countertop market works, she offers, closing the gap between what people want and what they purchase.

“People have always wanted the Italian white marble look. But even a few years back, Italian white marble-designed quartz used to be reserved for the high-end remodels. Today, that has all changed. People still want the Italian white marble looks, and kitchen remodels across the entire budget spectrum can take home the aspirational look that they dreamed of,” she reports.

Corian Quartz remains popular, Congress says, but they are also seeing a resurgence in Corian Solid Surface due to the fact that it’s non-porous, seamless and GREENGUARD Gold Certified. “People are increasingly interested in materials that prioritize disinfection and maintain good air quality. Also, with the increased desire for durability and cooking at home, we expect our new product Corian Endura to take off for new homeowners,” she adds.

Amendola says that his company is starting to see a trend towards porcelain and sintered stone, which are very thin materials. There’s a misperception, he adds, that sintered countertops are too difficult to fabricate. “Designers need to reach out to the manufacturer more to understand who the right fabricator partner is to have these materials fabricated and installed properly,” he comments.

“Terrazzo is moving into the mass market in new and modern ways, which I am thrilled about, because this old-new material brings additional surface options to complement a variety of home styles,” says Chmiel. “Whether in small or large scale, the colorful flecks in the patterns blend many tones in a single surface to coordinate with the hues in a space.”

Petter reports that “Material Mixology,” blending biophilic elements, textiles and engineered materials with the look of various natural materials like wood, metal and stone adds depth and allows for truly unique and personalized spaces. ▪

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