With house prices down, homeowners are more likely to be staying put, and that means many are being more creative in their design choices. For countertops, that translates to more colors, patterns and interesting mixing and matching of materials to create exciting visual focal points in the kitchen.
In fact, manufacturers recently surveyed by KBDN agree that unique materials and patterns are top of the list for countertop trends.
At the same time, budget concerns, eco awareness and a sustained interest in nature-themed looks continue to impact the countertop market.
“The countertop material offerings really exploded in the last 15 years,” says Jean Pauwels, distributor/marketer of Raleigh, NC based Pyrolave, a company which offers a unique glazed volvic lava stone surface. Previously, he says, granite, marble, laminate and solid surface were among the only choices. Now there are surfaces made from paper, concrete, recycled material, ceasarstone, stainless steel, Zinc, all kind of natural stones, ceramic and more.
“Designers are looking for new materials and they have plenty of choices,” agrees Bertrand Charest, president of ThinkGlass, a glass countertop manufacturer in Boisbriand, Quebec.
Because there are so many options available, consumers can shop within a wide range of price points, adds Lorenzo Marquez, marketing v.p. of Stafford, TX based Cosentino North America. “For designers, value means providing clients with the solution that delivers the style they are looking to achieve, while staying within the budget prescribed for the project. Sourcing reliable materials that continue to deliver on quality and performance are key to enhancing a designer’s relationship with their client,” he states.
Mary Warner, brand manager at Vetrazzo in Tate, GA sees recycled materials as the new wave of material, with glass steadily growing. “People see natural stone and they relate that to a decade ago,” she says, “whereas recycled glass surfaces, such as Vetrazzo, demonstrate an awareness of recycling or sustainability. These surfaces, often available in myriad colors, also allow homeowners and designers to create very personal spaces. Gone are the days of house flipping. People are staying put and want to make a mark on the space in which they spend a lot of time.”
Other manufacturers still see natural stone and stone-like looks as popular trends for kitchen surfaces.
Trisha Schmitt, v.p./corporate marketing for VT Industries in Holstein, IA says, “The popular looks include both natural stone and laminates and edge treatments that have a stone like appearance.” She cites the company’s new 1/8th inch radius Marbella edge as an example. “With marble becoming such a trending countertop material, our Marbella edge paired with the new laminates can really give you that look at an affordable price,” she says.
Laminate designs that mimic large-scale exotic stones, such as Formica’s 180fx® series, are popular because they provide new options to consumers looking for a low maintenance stone look at a more affordable price point, according to Gerri Chmiel, senior design manager at Formica Corporation in Cincinnati, OH. “Manufacturers are striving to create new surfacing designs that reflect the look of trendy materials at lower price points,” she says. “Introduced in the down economy, our 180fx collection has thrived, becoming the best-selling laminate collection in Formica Group’s history. Homeowners are being more realistic where they spend their dollars, and they’re looking for practical choices; 180fx fits both style and cost requirements.”
Dale Mandell, sales director – North America for Samsung Surfaces based in Los Angeles, CA says, “In the residential remodel segment, we’re seeing increased interest in countertop materials that are somewhat less traditional. In other words, we’ve noticed an increased demand for colors and patterns that are less similar to granite, but are more monotone and modern, with subtle design elements such as metallic flecks.”
Economizing with Style
It’s tough to have a design conversation without considering the current economy, but the plethora of materials available allows even those with smaller budgets to achieve the look they want. “Exotic granites and engineered stones remain popular options for homeowners undertaking expensive kitchen renovation projects, while new large-scale laminate surfacing options appeal to homeowners who desire an exotic look [while keeping to] smaller budgets,” says Chmiel.
Consumers who are remodeling may be also embarking upon less extensive projects such as changing countertops only, says Mandell. “As such, homeowners tend to upgrade the countertop materials and are seeking high quality materials that provide the design aesthetics they feel are important,” he states.
Another concession being made is that homeowners and designers are trimming back on the more expensive materials and balancing them with a lesser priced item, says Warner. “We see a lot of kitchen islands made of one of the more vibrant Vetrazzo mixes, but then the perimeter completed in a natural stone or neutral quartz material,” she says.
While some of these compromises must be made in the face of an economic downturn, manufacturers don’t believe consumers are trading style for value. This doesn’t mean consumers aren’t conscious of what they’re spending their hard earned money on, however. “I think they are getting savvier about how they use their more precious materials. They’re turning the higher priced materials into the focal point of their spaces,” says Marquez. He asserts that consumers want to feel good about the purchase they made, perhaps by having an impact on the local economy or environment. However, “Beauty still trumps the feel good value of investing in something that is recycled, so if it doesn’t look good, most consumer and designers will pass on it,” he adds.
Pauwels says, “Value notion varies from one client to another. Do you want the look only, the beauty of quality, or both?” With a specialty product like that of Pyrolave, there is a lot of time spent educating professionals and consumers, he adds. “Selling a high-end material in a challenging economic environment is not an easy task. Sampling is a significant budget, but necessary.”
Consumers are becoming more cautious about what they are buying says Lisa Herreth, product designer/marketing specialist for Hanwha Surfaces, whose North American headquarters is in Atlanta, GA. “As in fashion, you might buy one quality item in a versatile color rather than several less expensive items in a variety of trendy colors that you may only get a few wears out of them before the wear shows. Consumers put value into perspective. A durable countertop, such as quartz, will last a lifetime, so it may seem like an expensive purchase but knowing that it will last is valuable,” she says.
In addition to choosing their products wisely some homeowners are employing what Chmiel calls the “save and splurge” strategy, where they save on some aspects of the kitchen – such as painting or re-facing existing cabinets – while splurging on others.
Schmitt says, “I don’t think you have to compromise the design of a space anymore in order to get a better value. With all of the new laminate looks paired with the new edge profiles, I think you can really get both the look you want at an affordable price.”
Two contrasting style trends are impacting the countertop market: the trend toward countertops being used to add drama to the space versus the trend toward quieter, more nature-inspired looks.
“There is certainly a trend toward adding an accent piece in the kitchen,” says Charest. “Seventy percent of our sales include LED for lighting the tops, and to change the mood of the kitchen.”
Warner agrees. “People are getting bolder, more personal with their spaces,” she says. “With a slow economy, people are investing in their home with the expectation that they might be there for a while, so we’re seeing more movement of our colored slabs in shades ranging from turquoise to red as much as neutrals.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Pauwels sees clients “looking for a minimalist look, reflecting going back to a more simple and sustainable way of life, with less things around us.”
Rebecca Hewing, national sales manager, kitchen countertop division for butcher block manufacturer John Boos & Co. in Effingham, IL agrees: “Consumers always have and always will have [the] desire for a true natural element in their kitchen,” she says. In the butcher block market, the most popular wood remains North American hard rock maple, and the design trend is for simplistic edge detail, according to Hewing.
While natural looks remain in demand, even those sometimes get a more dramatic overhaul, manufacturers note. For instance, Herreth sees patterns moving away from safe and reserved looks to those with a more exotic, heavy-vein appearance. “The shift to unique patterns has brought customers back to earth tones and neutral colors,” she comments.
Schmitt adds, “Texture continues to be a big trend. I think people like the idea of natural products and in nature, you often see texture.”
The trend toward smaller more efficient kitchens has also had an impact on the countertop market. Mandell says this trend has increased interest in higher-end materials, such as quartz, as well as acrylic solid-surface countertops that emulate quartz.
Chmiel says that while smaller kitchens may mean less area for countertops, the primary effect is on the layout of the kitchen, rather than selection of countertop material. “Layouts are smarter, using techniques such as CounterScaping to create zones within a kitchen using various vertical heights and materials to maximize usable space. In non-work areas, part of the countertop may deviate from standard height to provide storage underneath,” she says.
Herreth feels that smaller kitchens offer a great opportunity to turn the countertops into an eye catching focal point, and she notes, “I think that in a small kitchen, you should add a pop of color or a bold pattern on a countertop and keep the rest of the design more reserved, such as simple white cabinets,” she says.
Of course not everyone is seeing a trend toward smaller kitchens. Marquez says that Consentino hasn’t seen the average size of a kitchen get smaller. “On the contrary we are seeing an increase in the average stone square footage used in most projects,” he says. “Layering different materials, finishes or colors in the kitchen can add an entirely new depth and depending on the application, and some consumers are starting to use a two-tone countertop design in their kitchen, selecting a product with more movement for the island and a solid hue around the perimeter,” he adds.
Hewing says that John Boos is seeing this trend toward multiple materials as well, where butcher block is integrated with stone/granite and other surfaces.
Durability & Maintenance
While the look of a countertop certainly impacts the choices designers and consumers are making, the functionality of the surface is just as important. Durability and ease of maintenance are important factors to consider.
“Due to the economy, we expect that the average life span of a kitchen may increase from seven years to nine or 10 years,” says Chmiel. “Understanding that the kitchen continues to be the command center of the household and that its counters function as everything from food prep areas to homework hubs, we continually look for ways to create hardworking yet beautiful laminate finish options to ensure surfaces maintain their original beauty over time.”
Interestingly, geography plays a role in the importance of durability, according to some manufacturers. As Warner explains, “People want a durable work surface in their kitchens. However, the demand for durability over beauty remains higher in the Midwest. On the East and West coasts, people seem more willing to sacrifice durability for a gorgeous, eye-catching countertop surface.”
Of course, as countertop durability improves, this can return the focus to aesthetics. Charest believes, “Nowadays, most of the countertop [choices out there] are durable and functional, so beauty becomes the factor in the high-end.”
The Green Scene
Environmental responsibility remains a key trend in kitchen design, and this is particularly true with countertops.
“Manufacturers and designers alike are paying more attention to producing and using more environmentally responsible products. I think it is not only important for the raw materials to be green, but also for the manufacturing processes going into making the product to be environmentally friendly,” says Schmitt.
Pauwels concurs that “green” is on the rise, with consumers looking more closely into the impact of materials on the environment. “Most manufacturers tend to present a super green product but the reality is no manufactured material is completely green,” he says. “However, efforts are made to lessen impact by working on the chain of production from raw material to delivery.”
Herreth adds, “I think in the near future people will move away from countertops made exclusively from finite sources and look at ones that incorporate recycled components and practices. Hanwha Surfaces currently has five colors that contain recycled components in them and utilizes several green initiatives, such as recycling the water and air purification, in the manufacturing of all of the products.”
Warner sums up the issue stating, “While beauty still trumps whether or not a product is ‘green,’ consumers are asking that question. They want to play a bigger role in sustainability than simply sending their recycling to the curb.”