25 Years of Innovation: Countertops
Twenty-five years ago, choosing a countertop was easy. You picked from a dozen or so colors of plastic laminate.
There's been a counter revolution in this country over the past 25 years. What used to be just a work surface has become a design element as integral to the look of our homes as the furniture.
The neon-orange plastic laminate used in the first This Old House TV project was typical of its time. In 1979, when the show launched, laminate brands such as Formica and Wilsonart commanded 90 percent of the countertop market. The '80s saw the rise of another synthetic marvel, solid surfacing, which was durable, stain resistant, and could be molded in a single, seamless piece with sink and backsplash. Soon it supplanted laminate as the countertop favorite.
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.
Countertop PCs are common; why not countertop as PC? Tell it the dish you want to prepare, and up comes the recipe. "Smart" kitchens, equipped with Internet-enabled appliances that can scan product labels and download cooking instructions, are already here. With new applications will come new choices for materials — such as glass, for instance, which makes for an ultramodern but surprisingly sturdy countertop surface.
Developed in 1913 as an industrial insulation material
Still the number one choice in bathroom counters
New Hampshire may be the Granite State, but most of the material mined in the U.S. comes from Minnesota
Invented in Italy in 1977, it's often called quartz, one of its primary ingredients
In the '70s it was butcher block; now it's teak, mahogany, and other exotic species
Stainless steel is impervious; copper, zinc, and bronze take on a "living" patina
Poured in place to any shape or color
Super-fine sheets glued together to 1-inch thickness
Natural volcanic stone with a kiln-fired enamel glaze
Collected from a 50-million-year-old lake bed in Wyoming
On the Fringe
Where to Find It
Poma Marble Inc.
Jack's Custom Woodwork Shop
Noble Metal Products (through surface techniques)
Joel Berman Glas Studios Ltd.
Green River Stone Company
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