Natural Beauty

by Ashley Lapin Olian
Countertop designs

In a well-designed kitchen, prep space is key. The countertop often stands out simply because it covers so much space, especially as the kitchen becomes a primary living area, and islands become the norm.

“We know the countertop and island are playing a much more prominent role in kitchen design, and now everything starts with the countertop,” says Nick Harris, v.p. of marketing at Caesarstone U.S. in Northridge, CA.

“Designers are working with homeowners to make sure the workspace is not only visually appealing, but also utilized to its fullest potential. Simply put, the goal for today’s kitchen is form and function, with sleek, orderly and multi-purpose living spaces,” says Mar Esteve, director of marketing for Neolith by TheSize, headquartered in Almazora, Spain.

Because surfaces are so prominent, there is great demand for variety, and the field has never been wider. Manufacturers are creating new colors, patterns and even new materials that allow homeowners to personalize their space with surfaces that perfectly suit their desired style.

“As kitchens grow, so does the need for variety in surfaces – new designs, more color options and diverse textures. So, we’re seeing this influx of innovative new styles and design features in the industry,” adds Brooke Mays, product designer for Temple, TX-based Wilsonart.

Aesthetically, neutral tones are on top. The look of natural materials – stone or wood – is often a top priority. Finishes are trending toward a textured, matte appearance rather than high-gloss, shiny surfaces. At the same time, designers are getting creative with mixing and matching materials to give the space a unique flair. Creative edging choices, such as waterfall edges that reach from countertop to floor, are also on the rise.

Functionality is also of vital importance. The busy lives of modern consumers mean designers must specify materials that are top quality, durable and easy to maintain. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

NATURAL AND NEUTRAL

The kitchen’s large and growing expanse of countertop space has many designers and homeowners looking to blend these surfaces seamlessly into the overall design rather than drawing too much attention to themselves. This creates a trend toward neutral tones, and lends itself well to the earthy colors of natural stone or wood.

“Whites and neutral shades remain some of the bestsellers across the industry,” says Steve Becker, v.p. of sales & marketing at Hanwha Surfaces in Atlanta, GA. “Consumers are becoming more confident in personalizing their kitchen by creating a neutral countertop base and adding accents such as splashes of color in cabinets or backsplashes, rustic wood materials and brass accents.” He adds that, in metro areas, there’s a demand for more contemporary colors, such as grays and taupes, which mimic the look of concrete. “These tend to fit seamlessly into a more industrial aesthetic,” he states.

“It’s all about natural neutrals. Homeowners want the elegant beauty of natural stone and woods to create a modern look that still feels welcoming,” says Mays. “Increasingly, people are looking for designs with both warm and cool hues to accommodate existing cabinetry or other home materials. They want something that updates their space but doesn’t require them to completely gut the space and start over.”

“Consumers want colors and styles that not only reflect their personal style, but also look expensive, are versatile, modern and look clean,” says Gerri Chmiel, residential design lead at Formica North America, based in Cincinnati, OH. “This year, specifically, homeowners talked about wanting rustic yet sophisticated woods for an urban farmhouse feel; natural stone patterns that have soft, subtle veining and movement; patterns in neutral white, gray and greige that will work in any setting, and new unique surface patterns that are a departure from typical stone and granite,” she says.

Grays and crisp whites are appealing to consumers because of their timeless and modern look, as well as aesthetics that mimic natural stone, says Katie Congress, global residential marketing manager at Wilmington, DE-based DuPont Protective Solutions. “The neutrality of these colors is always good to pair with brighter colors and items. The entire gray spectrum of color has become more popular in the last few years, in both kitchens and baths. In patterning, there is the movement toward linearity, and parallel veining, with distinct lines and veins,” she says.

Summer Kath, senior v.p. of business development at Le Sueur, MN-based Cambria, says the firm’s top 10 sellers are in the white category. All are smooth, clean looks that add movement, depth and clarity, she comments. “It’s a classic look that feels timeless,” she points out, noting that consumers stick to whites and neutral colors because of the significant investment involved, with a tendency to get a little edgier in elements that can more easily be changed.

WATERFALL EFFECT

A pull toward the natural world is not only prompting designers to lean toward materials that have the appearance of natural stone or wood, but also to mimic the way that elements flow in nature. The waterfall edge on a kitchen island presents surfacing material in a clean, continuous line from the top of the counter to the floor, much like water cascading off a mountainside.

“Waterfall islands are a big trend in the design industry,” says Massimo Ballucchi, marketing director at Stafford, TX-based Cosentino North America.

“Waterfall islands and peninsulas are definitely a trend we’re continuing to see in kitchen designs, with an accent – often bolder – décor that complements the main kitchen countertop,” agrees Esteve.

The increase of square footage in kitchens has allowed for these spaces to include islands and additional surface space. Becker says, “Kitchens are increasingly becoming the showpiece of the house, and we’ve seen an uptick of islands becoming the central point of the design. Designers are using this as an opportunity to experiment with waterfall edges, extra-large seamless surfaces and using different materials, including colors and textures, in the same space.”

LESS SHINE, MORE TEXTURE

Regardless of material choice, matte finishes and increased texture are increasingly being chosen for surface finish. “Textures are becoming more popular in both engineered and natural materials, ranging from a matte or honed finish to a textured or leathered finish,” Congress states.

Becker agrees: “Leather- and matte-type finishes have become increasingly popular throughout the last year and will continue to grow in 2018.”

This trend is consistent across a range of materials. “Texture is slowly moving from ‘look at me’ glossy on stones to matte with subtle textures for stones and non-stones alike,” adds Chmiel. “Honed or slate looks for stone remain popular,” she adds.

The desire for a matte finish follows trends in plumbing and appliances, Kath maintains. But getting a matte finish that still offers the low-maintenance surface consumers demand hasn’t always been easy, she states. The traditional way to obtain a matte finish was to hone the product. “But once it’s honed, it has a surface that can soil,” she notes, which can make the surface difficult to clean.

Esteve sees matte finishes gaining popularity in surfacing applications in other areas, such as showers and floors, but adds that it depends on the design preference of the homeowner.

HOT MATERIALS

There are many factors to consider when choosing which material to use in a countertop. Design and color are the first considerations, says Mays, then homeowners are looking at durability and how easy the surface is to clean and sanitize. “When you consider all of these needs, it’s clear why quartz and laminate are the materials that are leading the market,” she states. “Quartz has that natural stone look and feel, as well as the easy clean up and scratch and stain resistance, so it has been a big draw for homeowners. But we’re also seeing laminate as an in-demand material. Homeowners are drawn to laminate because of its lower price point, and with advanced printing technology, today’s designs can also provide that natural, neutral style that’s been trending.” 

Kath sees quartz continuing to grow more and more among those who can really afford it. With the ability of consumers to do research and easily learn what options exist, and what’s best for their lifestyle, they tend to choose quartz, she believes, because of its beautiful appearance without the worry.

There’s still room for new materials, as well. Neolith is categorized as sintered stone, combining raw materials – clays, feldspar, silica and mineral oxides – with state-of-the-art technology to create a slim high-tech slab, says Esteve. “The 21st century ushered in a new era in kitchen design, with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops as the epitome of the modern kitchen. Nearly two decades later, we’re seeing preferences shift again with a growing desire among homeowners and designers for alternative countertop materials and aesthetics,” Esteve believes.

Becker adds that the demand for new materials is constantly evolving. “New products are always entering the market, but quartz continues to see market share growth year-over-year as consumers become increasingly educated on the benefits, versatility and limitless color and visual texture options. With the ability to capture the look of other materials with optimum performance, this is not a trend we see ending anytime soon,” he notes.

Another pattern emerging is the use of more than one type of surfacing to create unique and personal designs. Harris is seeing more complex designs, with a broader range of colors. The use of more than one color is hotter than ever, he claims, along with the combination of many materials incorporated into one design.

“There’s a big rise in mixing materials throughout the kitchen to create more visual interest and texture,” adds Mays. “[They] start with a neutral quartz design, add in a warm wood design laminate, and sometimes throw in a pop of color in places like the backsplash, sink and even cabinets. All of these different materials and designs work together to provide homeowners the opportunity to really personalize their space.”

Congress concurs: “Material combinations are very popular right now, with homeowners using multiple materials or colors for their kitchen countertops.” Matching a quartz countertop with a solid surface tiled backsplash gives the look of tile without the maintenance, she adds. “We’re also seeing solid surface used on the countertop near the sink, and quartz used on the island. Homeowners are also mixing natural and manufactured materials for different countertop spaces.” 

INNOVATIVE APPLICATIONS

Surfacing materials are also reaching beyond the countertop, showing up throughout the home in a variety of interesting ways.

“Laminate and quartz are starting to be seen in less traditional spaces – on tables, backsplashes, walls, in workspaces and even on doors. These non-traditional uses are providing more space for materials,” says Mays.

“We are seeing quartz countertops in craft rooms, garages, laundry rooms – there’s more happening around the house, and people are realizing you can take quartz out of the kitchen and really utilize it throughout the home,” adds Harris.

Ballucchi notes that, as outdoor kitchens and entertaining spaces increase in popularity, Cosentino sees greater demand for countertops that can withstand the elements.

QUICK CARE

Countertops are functional spaces, not simply showpieces. Though more time than ever is being spent in kitchens, homeowners don’t want to spend a lot of that time cleaning the surfaces. Therefore, the need for easy-to-maintain, highly durable surfaces is critical.

The growth of quartz, solid surface and laminate surfacing is directly related to this need for easier maintenance, according to manufacturers. But although in some cases, natural stone may be harder to maintain, the look of natural stone is still highly appealing to homeowners. Manufacturers strive to create products that offer that beautiful aesthetic with less effort required.

“The kitchen, and kitchen countertops and islands, continue to be central ‘stations’ for homeowners’ daily activities,” says Chmiel. “Countertops and islands are used for activities ranging from cooking, to homework, to informal entertaining, to arts and crafts projects. As a result, durability is a critical factor for homeowners selecting surfacing.”

“The kitchen island continues to be a place for the family to gather, for parents to entertain friends and for kids to do homework,” agrees Ballucchi. “As kitchen islands become even more of gathering areas for families, they want materials that are easy to clean and low maintenance.”

“Everyone wants durability and easy to clean as features in their countertop; with our increasingly busy lives, no one has extra time to spend cleaning,” agrees Congress. And because the kitchen is more multi-purpose than ever before, she adds, it’s important that countertops not only create a warm and welcoming atmosphere, but are durable enough to withstand high traffic. “The rise in cooking shows has also led to an increase in cooking for personal enjoyment. As a result, consumers want kitchens that are ready to be used frequently, and can withstand the daily pressures of an active family,” she concludes. ▪

To see more countertops, go to our Product Guide.

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