Porcelain slab countertops are not entirely new, but they definitely qualify as enormously improved, and are poised to grab a well-deserved share of the market. They were first introduced in the late ‘90s as three-quarter inch slabs, comparable to the solid surface and stone tops they were positioned against.
The latest versions, seen at Cersaie, Cevisama and LivingKitchen trade shows in Europe, and at recent Coverings and Kitchen & Bath Industry Shows here, are typically three-sixteenths of an inch to slightly thicker than a third of an inch, and offer intriguing new capabilities.
The qualities that make porcelain a winner for kitchen and bathroom floors and walls – mainly its durability, versatility and low maintenance – make it a winner for countertops, too, with some added benefits. Unlike solid surface and engineered stone counters, porcelains are rated for exterior use. As a designer, that lets you create continuity between indoor and outdoor kitchens.
A popular benefit for solid surface clients is the integral sink, which can also be created by porcelain slab fabricators. Unlike solid surface, though, which typically restricts sinks to whites and beiges, integral porcelain sinks can be produced in color- and pattern-matched material. Additionally, the ultra-thinness of the porcelain slabs enhances the sleekness of contemporary kitchen designs. They are so thin, in fact, that they can be installed over existing countertops.
Unquestionably, natural and engineered stone counters occupy the largest slice of the high-end market. But just as designers are now confidently specifying natural-looking porcelain tile for floors and walls, they now have the option to specify it in oversized slabs for countertops, too.
These slabs will be heat and scratch-resistant, like granite, non-porous like quartz, and continually improving their aesthetics with new technologies.
“Porcelain slab countertops are a niche market because they have to compete with other typical, more traditionally used materials,” notes Andrea Serri, firector at the Italian Association of Ceramics. “Nevertheless, a slab countertop could be an interesting solution, especially when combined with tiles of the same color and pattern on the floors, walls, and baseboard.”
Italy and Spain are the two industry leaders in expanding the market for large-format porcelain and ceramic tile. “I believe the star is on the rise for slim-format porcelain slabs,” shares Ryan Fasan, Vancouver-based consultant to Tile of Spain USA. “As production technology continues to improve, manufacturers now can create slabs as large as five by 10 feet, allowing for large seamless islands.” (Earlier depth restrictions as recently as three years ago meant slabs were too narrow for many projects.)
Other innovations Fasan points to include improved glaze and inkjet technologies to produce dramatic metallics, delicate fabric and realistic wood looks that wouldn’t survive the demanding kitchen and bath environment in their natural state.
For the pros
Porcelain tops offer benefits for fabricators, too. First, there’s no need to purchase or modify the machinery already in the shop for stone tops, notes Ken Davis of Escondido, Ca.-based Davis Stone. “Installers love it,” he shares, as the material is so much lighter to load and lift than stone. “It’s easy to cut and easy to install, if you know what you’re doing,” the fabrication company owner adds. He does point out that it requires careful handling. Price-wise, it’s about the same as quartz and granite, or even a little less, Davis says.
On display at last year’s LivingKitchen show in Cologne, Germany was a porcelain slab top from TPB Barcelona, in partnership with fellow Spanish brand Levantina, showcasing built-in induction burners. Rather than interrupting the visual flow with a glass rectangle, the burners are built right into the counter, installed where the designer and homeowner want them. Fasan shares that new porcelain cooking surfaces for delicate pastry handling are also coming onto the market. (North American release dates are not available for either yet.)
Another intriguing advancement is complete design customization. Designers can upload a client’s digital image to Italian manufacturer Lea Ceramiche’s LeaLab site and get a totally unique countertop for the client’s project.
Spanish brand Cosentino, best known for its popular Silestone quartz tops, is introducing a porcelain hybrid, which they sneak previewed at KBIS 2013. Dekton, which hit the market late last year, combines porcelain, glass and quartz for a durable, low-maintenance indoor/outdoor surfacing option.
In the last five years, you’ve seen how far porcelain tiles have come in their ability to reproduce natural stone and wood looks for bathroom and kitchen floors and walls. This is what’s next, with the added benefit of creating a space totally personalized to your clients’ taste and needs.
Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS is an independent designer in San Diego, the author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work (Taunton Press, 2012), and a blogger, design journalist, seminar developer and industry consultant.