A top for all tastes
Countertop options stretch far and wide in today’s kitchens
by Diane Silcox-Jarrett
The kitchen is the room where memories quite literally are made, from icing birthday cakes to sharing your day over a slice of pie. And an essential component of any working kitchen is its countertops. After all, it’s where most of the actual work takes place.
But today’s creations are not your mother’s countertops. They’re being replaced with a wide selection of materials and styles to suit every design taste. These days, you can mix Grandma’s famous cookie recipe on a handsome granite, quartz or marble countertop, or share a few laughs over a bright red counter made entirely of bamboo.
“These new materials are what people are choosing now,” says Chanda Strother of Schneider Stone Inc. in Chapel Hill. “Formica, which is a brand name for laminate, is still out there, but I would say that 90 percent of people change their Formica countertops in order to sell their homes.”
Here’s a primer on some of the latest trends in countertops.
Granite, one of the top choices for kitchens, also is one of hardest substances on Earth, making it an ideal and durable choice for a work surface while adding a touch of class.
“It’s a decorative natural stone and is very versatile,” says Mary T. Liebhold, CKD, owner of The Kitchen Specialist Inc. in Durham.
“It’s also highly resistant to abrasion and is heat resistant,” she adds. “By adding a sealant treatment, it can be protected from moisture as well.”
When it comes to selection, Liebhold notes that there’s plenty of options for every taste.
“There are literally hundreds of choices, and we typically look at many colors and textures of slabs before selecting the one to be used,” she says. “We start looking locally but have found the slabs we want all over the country. Using the same stone in two of our kitchens is unusual.”
Quartz is another popular material for today’s homeowners.
“It adds depth and natural movement to the countertop, and the younger generation likes quartz because of its easy care,” Strother says.
It’s also in the same price range as granite and is maintenance free, explains Lorenzo Marquez, vice president of quartz maker Cosentino North America. With the same rich, earthy colors and appearance of granite, quartz can change an ordinary kitchen with its elegance.
Cosentino’s Silestone quartz is an antimicrobial, scratch-resistant, high-performance surface that’s rated for commercial food preparation surfaces.
“It’s nonporous and never needs to be sealed,” Marquez says of the surface. “With today’s economy, people want something that will last a long time, and they want to make an investment. Quartz is a great product for that.”
Marble brings an impressive yet classic quality to any kitchen. What makes it so beautiful is its color, as well as its natural veining. According to Strother, the most commonly used traditional color is White Carrara, although there are higher-level marbles like Rainforest Green and Emperador Dark that can be used as well.
“Marbles also come in several finishes such as polished, honed and leathered, which provides a sleek look to your kitchen,” she says.
Marble does need to be sealed and then resealed annually. Also, spills should be wiped up immediately, but the beauty of marble makes such care a small price to pay.
Concrete also is making its way into kitchens, but as Liebhold explains this is not the same type of concrete found in your driveway. As one of the latest trends, it adds distinction to a room and is easily adaptable when it comes to decorating. Concrete countertops typically are designed by artists, so homeowners can add personal touches when selecting styles.
“You can embed things into it, insert color, mold a drain board into the countertop or add fiber-optic lighting,” she says.
At Common Ground Green Building Center in Durham, concrete countertops are finished with a permanent, nontoxic substance that resists staining and etching.
Natural wood is another increasingly popular option selected by today’s homeowners.
“The standard for wooden countertops has been maple because it’s very hard, but other familiar species are being used, such as walnut, mahogany, cypress, lacewood, zebrawood, iroko, and bubinga,” Liebhold says.
“Natural wood has tannin, which kills bacteria and often is safer than plastic cutting boards when properly maintained,” she adds. “Scratches can be sanded, and oil finishes are easy to apply.”
For those looking to go green in the kitchen, a trip to Common Ground presents several attractive and distinctive options. The company, owned by Paul Toma and his wife, Dawn Hintgen, uses nontoxic materials for countertops using local suppliers.
In addition to using concrete for its countertops, the eco-friendly company mixes in glass salvaged from a Raleigh recycling station.
“Mixing the glass with concrete makes an incredible-looking countertop,” Toma says.
Common Ground also installs countertops featuring stone from the New River. The state of North Carolina performs low-impact dredging twice a year, and the manufacturer mixes the stones with concrete.
“The end result is pretty amazing,” he notes.
Solid countertops made entirely from recycled paper and resin are another specialty at Common Ground.
“It is pretty much indestructible, does not stain and handles heat,” Toma says.
The company also installs bamboo countertops, which are food friendly and antibacterial by nature, and solid cork tops, which naturally handle heat and water.
Cosentino carries a line of countertops made from 75 percent post-consumer and post-industrial recycled raw materials and 25 percent natural elements. Recycled materials include glass, mirror and porcelain, while natural materials include quartz, stone scrap, and corn oil-based resin. The product is durable and nonporous, does not require sealers, and has a high resistance to scratching and scorching.
The kitchen — the room where so much of a family’s’ life takes place — certainly can take a lot of abuse. But this wear and tear doesn’t have to show up on today’s countertops. From granite to bamboo, you can bake all the cookies you want while enjoying your own personalized style.
Diane Silcox-Jarrett is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.