The Present

If '70s homeowners had a dozen or so styles of laminate to choose from, today they have that many materials: concrete, copper, Corian, cherry, ceramic tile, Carrara marble—and that's just the Cs. (Even laminate is available now in hundreds of colors and patterns.) While today's market is dominated by granite, which exploded in popularity as prices dropped in the '90s, it's being challenged by a new contender: engineered stone, which resembles the real thing but has lab-perfect consistency.

To complicate matters further, a typical kitchen of 2004 might have not just one countertop but several—say, the usual straight run, plus a granite-topped island, a marble baking station, and a stainless prep area with built-in butcher-block cutting board. The design pros call such mixing and matching "surface synergy."

And it's not enough for counters to sit around looking pretty. They have to work, too. Counters are becoming ever more functional, with such features as integrated drain boards—grooves routed directly into the surface that channel water into the sink—and even hydraulic lifts that let you vary the height for maximum comfort.

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