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Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

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 Past

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.

Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

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.

Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

The Future

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.

Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

Major Players

  1. PLASTIC LAMINATE
  2. Developed in 1913 as an industrial insulation material
  3. SOLID SURFACING
  4. Still the number one choice in bathroom counters
  5. GRANITE
  6. New Hampshire may be the Granite State, but most of the material mined in the U.S. comes from Minnesota
  7. ENGINEERED STONE
  8. Invented in Italy in 1977, it's often called quartz, one of its primary ingredients
  9. WOOD
  10. In the '70s it was butcher block; now it's teak, mahogany, and other exotic species
  11. On the Fringe
  12. METAL
  13. Stainless steel is impervious; copper, zinc, and bronze take on a "living" patina
  14. CONCRETE
  15. Poured in place to any shape or color
  16. PAPER
  17. Super-fine sheets glued together to 1-inch thickness
  18. LAVA
  19. Natural volcanic stone with a kiln-fired enamel glaze
  20. FOSSIL STONE
  21. Collected from a 50-million-year-old lake bed in Wyoming
Photo by Geoffrey Sokol

Where to Find It

Decorative laminates:

Formica Corporation

800-367-6422

www.formica.com

Wilsonart International

800-433-3222

www.wilsonart.com

Solid surfacing:

Corian by Dupont

877-229-3935

www.corian.com

Avonite

800-428-3935

www.avonite.com

Natural stone:

Poma Marble Inc.

Rosemon, IL

847-678-7662

www.pomamarble.com

Engineered stone:

Cambria Quality Quartz Surfaces

866-226-2742

www.cambriausa.com

Zodiaq by Dupont

877-229-3935

www.zodiaq.com

Wood:

Jack's Custom Woodwork Shop

Woburn, MA

781-935-1907

Metals:

Noble Metal Products (through surface techniques)

Norwalk, CT

877-784-8677

Concrete:

Buddy Rhodes Studio

877-706-5303

www.buddyrhodes.com

Cheng Design

510-849-3272

www.chengdesign.com

Glass

Joel Berman Glas Studios Ltd.

888-505-4527

www.jbermanglass.com

Lava stone:

Pyrolave USA

919-788-8953

www.pyrolave.com

Fossil stone:

Green River Stone Company

435-753-4069

www.greenriverstone.com

Paper:

Richlite

888-383-5533

www.richlite.com

For further information:

www.concretenetwork.com