Counter Intelligence

The choice of countertops for your kitchen is anything but a surface-level decision. It can establish the mood of the room, set the stage of a certain time and place and influence the style of your entire home. The heart of the home is, after all, the kitchen.

 

Beyond their aesthetic qualities, counters also largely dictate how we operate in and around our kitchen area. For most, an efficient kitchen is functional and practical, an inviting space to spread out ingredients and preparation tools with plenty of room to move around. So, while countertops have the ability to create stunning lines and vibrant visuals, shoppers should keep in mind that counters also need to be able to withstand the realities of an active kitchen—meal prep, pots of boiling water, frozen casserole dishes, spilled wine, dropped knives. From one day to the next, your countertops could be asked to serve a variety of unexpected roles as cutting boards, office desks, snack bars, even seats.

 

Of course, the plethora of options can be overwhelming. Just remember the advice of local furniture and countertop artisan, Eric Billig: “There’s no one right way to set up a home kitchen. All that matters is choosing a counter that works for the way you prefer to cook, bake and just be in your kitchen.”

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Counter Considerations

 

  • Not every surface has to be the same—consider installing a section of wood for chopping, or a slab of marble for rolling dough. Different colors on a kitchen island can add intrigue, and creative edges and backsplashes can add more personality. 
  • “Trends come and go; so will materials,” says Moe Freid, owner and operator of Moe Freid Marble & Granite for over 40 years. Consider whether the color and style of the counter you’re drawn to will maintain its appeal over time. 
  • Look at, and feel, any stone or material samples in the showroom, but also do the same in the kitchen itself. As with paint, different light can cause the color of natural stones and finishes to vary greatly. 
  • Choose the countertops before anything else in the kitchen. Not only are the counters one of the most expensive components, but they also affect the rest of the kitchen. You should be in love with the countertops. 
  • “There is nothing in the world that is truly maintenance-free,” says Freid. “You have to clean any countertop, and with enough traffic, every material will eventually wear.” 
  • Freid also notes that synthetic materials require research into their component parts while natural materials require a degree of patience with their unpredictable natures. 

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Natural Materials

 

Granite. Granite is known for its impressive durability—holding up to all manner of stains, scratches, nicks, temperatures and bacteria. Granite is also timeless and elegant, and famous for evoking gasps in the presence of its beautiful mottling and color striations. But granite needs to be resealed (either DIY or professionally) every few years, and—because it’s often mined in the U.S. and shipped to China for manufacturing before being shipped back—Billig warns that the associated carbon footprint can be high. Cost: $100 to $225 per square foot. 

 

Marble. Few things are more glamorous than a marble countertop—conjuring up dreams of classic French patisseries. In terms of radiance and distinction, marble is in a category all its own. However, despite its noted heat tolerance, marble is susceptible to stains even once sealed, and can also scratch and chip more easily than granite. It’s also one of the most expensive options and involves the same environmental cost as granite to quarry and ship. Cost: $125 to $250 per square foot.

 

Soapstone. Composed predominantly of mineral talc with added quartz, soapstone brings a subtle depth and smooth matte finish to older and rustic homes. Soapstone counters are installed in light gray and green hues but darken over time and acquire a patina—a cherished characteristic. Soapstone requires polishing or sanding frequently (either DIY or professionally) to maintain its silky surface and is not as durable as other stones. Cost estimate: $60 to $105 per square foot.

 

Butcher block. Made from an assortment of fused hardwoods, such as walnut, oak, maple, cherry and bamboo, butcher block countertops have enjoyed a recent surge in popularity. They provide a rich and sought-after coziness to a kitchen, and are valued for their usability—foods can be placed and cut directly on the countertop to maximize space. Despite the convenience, the blocks are easily scorched, stained and scratched, and need continual upkeep (oiling, sanding and resealing—either DIY or professionally) to maintain that velvety look. And because wood is porous, there is potential for a sanitation concern. If made from reclaimed wood, these countertops have a mild environmental impact. Cost: $30 to $75 per square foot.

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Synthetic Materials

 

Concrete. Made from a mix of cement and sand, concrete countertops have also been finding their way into contemporary kitchens, and if sourced from local, recycled pieces, are an environmentally sound choice. Concrete is also extremely versatile—imaginative artisans like Billig can mold it into any shape, tint it myriad hues and even cast it with other materials such as glass, tile and fabric. It’s an excellent choice for modern, heavy-use kitchens because of its scratch-resistance and industrial edginess. Concrete is treated to help eliminate porosity and cracking, but must be sealed when needed (either DIY or professionally) for protection. Cost: $65 to 135 per square foot. 

 

Solid-Surface and Laminate. Formica and Corian are well-known manufacturers of solid-surface countertops—a conglomerate of acrylic, polyester resins, marble dust and other pigments. Solid-surface is a cousin to laminate, which is made by gluing paper or fabric sheeting to plywood substrate. Both have been kitchen mainstays for years. While not always the most stylish option, newer designs mimic the detail and distinction of other high-end surfaces, without the added cost. Yet, while impervious to stains and germs, these surfaces are vulnerable to heat and scratches, and environmentally, are energy-intensive and not recyclable. Cost: $75 to $120 per square foot. 

 

Stainless Steel. These counters are the darling of the restaurant industry and for good reason—they’re antimicrobial, non-staining, nearly indestructible and a breeze to clean. They’re also affordable and an ideal choice for hard-working kitchens. Note, though, that stainless will proudly display that hard work through dents, scratches, etchings and the loud clanging of pots and pans. Environmentally, it can be recycled, although the components to make it—steel, chromium and nickel—are originally mined. Cost: $75 to $140 per square foot. 

 

These are just a handful of the basic options available to countertop shoppers. When you add in recycled glass, ceramic tile, lava stone, limestone, engineered stone, quartz and paper composite, the possibilities seem endless. “Years ago, the selection we had in different stones and materials didn’t even touch what we have today,” says Freid.

by Claire Cella • Photography by Marc Brown