Countertops play an essential role in the kitchen – both for their aesthetic value and functional properties. From food prep to homework, entertainment to eating, these kitchen surfaces are used in a multitude of ways. Not only do they have to hold up under all that use, they must make a visual statement about the homeowner’s personal style as well.
Whether made of natural stone, solid surface, quartz, laminate, glass, wood or some mix-and-match combination of the above, today’s countertops are expected to be beautiful, durable and easy to maintain. And, consumers want products that offer options at every price point. Hot trends right now include clean, nature-inspired looks, textural interest, durability, value and plenty of options for making a personal design statement. So say manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.
Gwen Petter, director of product design for Temple, TX-based Wilsonart says that kitchens are morphing into the hub of all home activities. “It’s not only for cooking and eating; it’s an entertainment center, a work space, a technology hub and so on,” she says. “This means countertops play a variety of roles. Homeowners are looking for a surface that’s easy to maintain, can stand up to the everyday wear and are stylish.” Personalization is also a hot trend, she adds, and materials like laminate make it easy for anyone to get what they want. “With laminate’s ability to emulate such a variety of design choices – stones, granites, woods and abstracts – homeowners of all style preferences can find a solution to personalize their space,” she says.
With homeowners’ increasing desire to create a space that says something about their personal style, manufacturers are coming up with new options at many different price points. Social media platforms like Houzz and Pinterest allow anyone to share their creations, says Chad Rosen, v.p. of sales at Vetrazzo, based in Tate, GA, and options are what it’s all about. “There are so many new products coming to the market all the time,” he says. “Consumers and designers get to paint their masterpiece with a broad pallet of mediums and the world is their audience,” he states.
“When it comes to choosing surfaces for the home, beauty and functionality is what matters to the homeowner,” adds Summer Kath, senior director of business development and brand alliances at Cambria, based in Eden Prairie, MN.
Lorenzo Marquez, v.p./marketing for Cosentino North America, based in Stafford, TX, agrees: “Countertops are one of the most utilized elements of a kitchen, and need to withstand all varieties of usage demands. And, thanks for the evolution of production technologies that create rich movement and veining, countertops now go beyond utility to make a dramatic design statement.”
There has been a big move in the market toward surfaces with a natural look and feel. This look can be achieved through the use of natural materials, such as wood, granite and marble, or through materials that mimic the aesthetic at a much lower cost.
“Consumers are looking for countertops that look and feel like natural surfaces like marble, granite or wood. They’re looking for beautiful surfaces inspired by maple and oak,” Petter says. They want these looks without the added maintenance or hefty price tag, she adds. “That’s where laminate comes in. Laminate has come such a long way since that of our grandparents’ era and people are starting to take notice. It’s quickly becoming Plan A as a material that’s easy to clean and maintain, has low impact on the environment and is highly durable,” she adds.
“We are seeing more preference for wood, both real wood and wood grain laminate,” agrees Trisha Schmitt, v.p. corporate marketing for Holstein, IA based VT Industries.
The resurgence in popularity of lighter, natural stones such as marble is a growing trend that Cosentino has been monitoring and planning for, says Marquez. “We’ve developed new colors for Silestone and Dekton that emulate these materials but eliminate the potential for the wear and tear and high maintenance associated with natural stones,” he says.
Neutral Tones with Texture
In keeping with this desire for an organic feel, natural hues are also being used more often. Whites, greys, brown and beige top the list of preferences. “We’re seeing neutral hues, including creamy whites, soft grays and muted blacks gaining popularity,” says Marquez.
Kath says that trends are moving toward calm looks and monochromatic color schemes. “More and more homeowners are looking to get away from a ‘busy’ countertop. The trends in countertops are driven by the trends in the kitchen, which have gone lighter, brighter and whiter. We think this is because the homeowner wants the kitchen to be calming and happy over busy and intrusive,” she notes.
Thomas Perich, North American marketing manager, Surfaces, DuPont Building Innovations in Wilmington, DE, says that customers are interested in colors with natural movement. Whites, beiges and greys are especially in demand, he adds.
Though neutral colors are in, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of variance from kitchen to kitchen. With the wide range of shades available, choosing white or grey doesn’t mean selecting exactly the same thing as everyone else. “50 shades of grey isn’t only the title of a hot romance novel,” says Rosen. “Grey is definitely showing up in kitchens and baths across the country, but light and white take the lion’s share of volume for sales of most manufacturers’ products,” he states. There is plenty of room for personal style as well.
Rosen adds, “Market to market across the country, the colors and patterns are as varied as the style of architecture that defines a region.”
Texture adds an element of interest to the countertop style, allowing for a wide variety of unique designs, and Kath notes that, “There continues to be a demand for honed and different textures on countertops surfaces.”
Petter agrees. “Texture continues to rise as an attention-getter. While gloss surfaces are dominant for stone looks, we are seeing more surfaces that have been leathered, honed or antiqued, creating dimension and lower gloss levels,” she says.
Quartz on the Rise
Options abound in countertop materials, and many factors impact which choice a consumer makes. That said, quartz is one material that is consistently gaining attention in the marketplace.
According to Rosen, the durability, consistency, and enormous variety of colors and patterns makes quartz the fastest growing countertop category.
“Quartz is continuing to grow in popularity,” agrees Perich. “It is beginning to gain traction with consumers in the way granite used to, with customers asking for it specifically, as opposed to it being suggested to them.”
Kath concurs: “More and more designers and homeowners are demanding quartz and going away from granite. With quartz, they get the performance benefits and ability to live maintenance free, without sacrificing the beauty,” she says.
While larger scale granite looks are popular, says Petter, she’s also seeing a rise in quartz looks that range from small and balanced designs to larger patterns with movement, contrast and color play. “As far as the overall countertop industry is concerned,” she notes, “we’re continuing to see the popularity of quartz as a surface of choice rise, and we only anticipate this popularity will grow in the years to come.”
Luxury and Value
While consumers in the luxury market are willing and able to spend more on their countertops than those in a mid-range price point, a look of luxury and a sense of value is important across all categories, say manufacturers.
“People want luxury, and they tend to splurge on flooring, countertops and appliances,” says Schmitt. “Understanding the best products to maximize efficiencies always helps to achieve the aesthetic they desire while staying within budget.” While a solid wood top is at a high price point, a wood grain laminate look along with a VT Dimensions edge profile offers the option of a wood grain look at an affordable price, she adds.
Marquez adds, “While the fluctuation in the economy certainly impacts purchasing power, what remains consistent is the demand for products that add value to the home.”
As more choices become available, price point options also increase, according to Rosen. “Competition drives down the market and the space is crowded with options. Fortunately, housing prices and construction are robust right now so we aren’t seeing the abject price wars that defined the market during the crash,” he says. Those seeking something new and unique can look to a higher price point to narrow the market and ensure that their selection won’t be seen everywhere, he adds.
Regional economic differences also impact what is happening in countertops. “Big cities are booming and spending money – homeowners are doing renovations and building homes,” says Kath. “This boom is driving a demand for more options in the countertop space.”
Trends cross price points, and the popular looks need to be available to the entire range, manufacturers say. “This upcoming generation of homeowners is certainly more cost-conscious than those of generations past due to the economic environment in which they were raised,” says Petter. However, she notes, “Just because you are on a budget doesn’t mean you have to choose a second-rate design.”
Marquez agrees: “Homeowners expect to be able to use high-quality and design-friendly materials regardless of budget and price point.” He adds that Cosentino’s expansive range of colors and materials ensures that both performance and design needs can be met, regardless of budget or price point.
Counter space is highly coveted, especially as the kitchen becomes a place for much more than cooking and eating. Richard Stephenson, residential sales consultant for ThinkGlass in Boisbriand, Quebec, Canada, says consumers are putting in more surface space by adding large island countertops, seating areas, or even small additions. Countertops that are two to three inches thick are being asked for more often as well, he adds.
“Countertops are the most used surface and the most personal space in a kitchen,” Schmitt says. She adds that VT Industries, too, is seeing a lot of thicker edges trending right now.
As countertops take on an expanding role in the kitchen, there is also an expanding desire to increase overall countertop space, according to Petter. “Islands are more desirable for a secondary work or social surface, and we are seeing more layering of surfaces,” she says.
Marquez adds, “We’re witnessing a surge in the amount of space being devoted to counters in the kitchen – especially in the form of oversized kitchen islands. They serve as a central gathering and working space, bring together the room, and, in some cases, replacing a traditional kitchen table altogether.” Large-format slabs, such as Dekton’s 56”x 126” slab size, allow these oversized counters to have minimal seams and disruptions in pattern, he notes.
This seamless look is something that other manufacturers are seeing a desire for as well. “Homeowners are drawn to a surface that can span the entire island or surface without seams,” says Kath, adding that Cambria offers jumbo slabs spanning 60 square feet to meet these demands.
Schmitt adds, “The integrated backsplash, no-drip edges, and full wrap edge profiles are what the customer expects to get in a premium countertop. They don't want the seams that they associate with the countertops of their parents’ kitchens and bathrooms. Seams catch dirt and grime, and are hard to clean.”
As the “workhorse” in the kitchen, countertops must not only look good, but must also offer top notch durability, holding up when exposed to high heat, and fending off scratches and stains. Additionally, maintenance shouldn’t require large amounts of time or effort, say manufacturers.
“With our society’s fast-paced and high-impact lifestyle, the need for durability from a countertop is no longer a luxury – it’s an expectation,” says Petter. Items commonly placed on the surfaces, such as laptops, backpacks, purses and keys contribute to wear and tear on a countertop, along with normal countertop use, she says.
“Our customers want countertops that won't chip, won't scratch, won't discolor in contact with extreme heat, and are easy to clean and maintain,” agrees Schmitt.
Marquez adds, “Homeowners are highly protective of the investments they make in the home – they want assurance that the products they are installing into their kitchen are going to withstand the test of time, and not stain or scratch. They also want to be sure that it isn’t going to require constant upkeep or frequent maintenance.”
According to Rosen, the race to bring the world’s most durable countertop to market is a hotly contested one. “Health and wellness even play a part in the conversation as manufacturers use additives like Microban to reassure customers that their product won’t breed germs,” he adds. That says, he adds that at the same time, the durability of a product isn’t always the determining factor if someone has a particular look in mind that only certain materials can accomplish.
Manufacturers report mixed findings about how important the environmental aspects of products and manufacturing techniques are to clients. While most agree that the final product decision usually comes down to aesthetics, manufacturers disagree about how invested clients are in finding green products.
“Very few people are truly concerned about environmental responsibility,” states Stephenson, estimating that it’s important to less than 10% of his firm’s clients.
Rosen says that green design and environmental responsibility don’t affect trends nearly as much as they should. “The most sustainable options on the market are often overshadowed by products that offer a cross section of price points and durability, [as these] seem to be much more important to the market,” he says. He adds that there is very little oversight or regulation on how countertops are made with regard to the environment.
Kath adds that while it’s almost implied that companies should have environmental best practices in place, homeowners tend to choose their designs based on beauty and aesthetics first. “Environmentally responsibility is a plus,” she explains.
Marquez, however, says that green design and a sense of environmental responsibility do play into trends in countertops. “There’s demand for products that are environmentally or sustainably minded but still maintain a design-focused aesthetic,” he says. “While some may consider ‘green’ products to have a less refined aesthetic, it’s entirely possible to have a sleek, contemporary look or warm traditional aesthetic,” he adds, citing the ECO by Cosentino line as a range of options to meet a variety of styles. Trends in environmental responsibility extend well beyond product ingredients and have become an integral part of the manufacturing process, he adds.
Schmitt concurs. “Being green has gone from a plus to an expected qualification. People are interested in the materials that make up their countertops – where they come from and how they are extracted as well as how the material used is replaced for future generations,” she says.
Petter concludes, “Homeowners these days are more cognizant of what impact the choices they make and the materials they use in their homes have on the environment, prompting them to seek out eco-friendly options.”