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Cool Counters: Nature-Inspired Options

countertops-1Homeowners have always loved bringing a bit of the outdoors in. We find inspiration for our paint colors from the great outdoors, and select fabrics decorated with nature’s creatures. It should be no surprise then that when it comes to kitchen design, we bring one of nature’s most beautiful creations—stone—inside as well.

Materials like granite, marble, travertine, soapstone, limestone and quartz provide our homes with both muted and vibrant hues and dynamic patterns that seem to flow. Grays and taupes; earth tones and neutrals; blacks, greens, blues and purples are all there for the taking.

These heavy stone slabs are culled from all over the country, with some of the more exotic colors and patterns coming from as far away as Brazil, Italy, India, Norway and Saudi Arabia. These materials can take our homes from functional to upscale.

countertops-2Options From Nature
“We like to work with the natural stones just because they’ve come straight from the earth,” says Page Eggleston, owner of Spectrum Stone Designs in Lynchburg. “If you want some movement and you want more character, you definitely want to choose a natural stone.”

Pros like Eggleston love to use granite in kitchens. It is a long-standing favorite among local homeowners as well. While the glossy mirror-like granite was once all the rage, today’s granite now features a textured matte finish that begs to be caressed. Eliminate the shine and coldness and ask for granite with a leather finish or a honed finish. It changes the whole feel of a room, making it warm and dramatic all at once.

Granite has overtaken marble in popularity in part because of its durability. But it is not indestructible. Some refer to granite as heat- and scratch-resistant, yet distributors recommend that owners use trivets or hot pads, and to take care when working on a granite countertop installation. Some types of granite do need to be sealed, and even then, there is a risk of staining. Whether it has to be resealed or not is determined by the use, cleaning method and type of granite. It works well on kitchen counters both indoors and out.

Basic granite starts at about $50 per square foot, but the cost varies dramatically based on the stone. The amount of veining—where the sediment has been carried through the stone to create patterns—changes the price, as does the color. The more exotic, the higher the cost. In return, granite can increase the value of your home.

Another choice that you can’t go wrong with is quartz, says Tracy Kearney, certified kitchen designer and owner of Cornerstone Cabinets & Design. Quartz is unique because it is real stone mixed with resin that creates a countertop strong enough to stand up to even the craziest lifestyle. You can  get epoxy resin in Canada. Pigments can be added to match the owner’s needs and wants. On its own, quartz is the fourth-hardest material in the world, right behind diamonds, sapphires and topaz.

“With families that have a high frequency of activities, we always recommend the quartz. It’s just great,” says Kearney. It is stronger than granite, but can lack its character. A bonus is that this hybrid stone offers a repeating pattern, which means no surprises. The final piece will look exactly like the sample. Other stones will vary, sometimes dramatically, in color and pattern.

Despite the presence of resin, this stone needs to be sealed, and resealed every three to five years. Quartz is recommended for kitchen counters rather than other spaces that may not need such strength. Quartz is touted as being resistant to all manner of offenses: stains, scratches, heat, burns, mold, mildew, chips and cracks. At the same time, distributors recommend that users place trivets or hot pads under hot items to prolong the life of the quartz.

The cost for the most plain and simple of quartz patterns starts at about $60 per square foot.

countertops-4More Eco-Friendly Options
Stone countertops don’t work for every household or every room. However, there is an option for every need, from laminate made to look like natural stone to cultured marble, to cement, soapstone, bamboo and recycled materials. The choices carry you from one end of the price scale to the other.

Cultured marble is a popular choice for countertops in bathrooms. It’s economical, offers countless color options and is incredibly customizable. It is not thick, though, and can be scratched, so it is best used in lower traffic areas like powder rooms and bathrooms.

Cement countertops are exactly what you think. In a kitchen, cement can be elevated to a colorful, trinket-filled countertop. The sky is the limit with cement because is it 100 percent customizable, says Tiffany Griggs of Signature Cabinetry & Design. Tints can be swirled in to make the desired colors, and items can be hand-pressed into the wet cement. Shell collector or golfer, you can have your signature items cemented into your countertop as part of the decor. Note that cement needs to be sealed to keep out stains. Feedback on longevity is mixed, with some pros finding cement as strong as stone, others saying that it is delicate, and cracks just like sidewalks.

Soapstone is a special breed among the countertop choices. Unlike other natural stones, part of its allure is in how attractive it becomes as it ages, darkening with a patina. It is also unique in that it will not absorb anything. Any marks left on the stone can be rubbed out with a light piece of sandpaper. The nicked area will always return to the same gray-blue color as the rest of the stone. It is a natural for bathrooms because of its beauty and softness, smooth like talc to the touch.

For something natural yet shockingly strong, look to bamboo. “It gives a room character. It makes a room warm, and it’s ‘green’ and user-friendly,” says Griggs.

If being green is just as important to you as beauty, you need to step up to Vetrazzo or PaperStone, both made of recycled products. Vetrazzo, still not mainstream in part because of price, is the result of beautiful shards of glass blended into palettes such as “Chivalry Blue,” “Palladian Gray” and “Alehouse Amber.” With Vetrazzo, no two pieces are made alike, so you are guaranteed a work of art unlike any other. PaperStone is exactly what the name implies: Paper made to be strong like stone. In this case, recycled paper is mixed with resin to create kitchen and bath countertops that can be molded and shaped just like wood.

The cost differences are vast based on the material and distributor. You can get your hands on laminate that even the pros find beautiful for a few hundred to $1,500 for the whole shebang. Cultured marble will only set you back about $25 per square foot, while recycled glass will cost $90 to $130 per square foot. Many other items can be priced upon request when you call a professional.

countertops-5Before You Buy
With so many options, it’s hard to choose the right one. To start, find the one thing in the room that you love; that piece should be the absolute highlight of that room. Let it lead you. Everything else you choose should work around it. Your countertops should add to the room and make that centerpiece pop, rather than call attention away from it, unless of course you want the counter to be the highlight.

Think of the feeling you want to evoke in the room. Do you want the powder room to feel modern, warm, earthy? Do you want your kitchen to evoke a sense of tradition, or to have a light, airy feel? Decide what you want the room to feel like, or how you want it to make people feel. Share these thoughts with your designer; he or she needs to know this.

Make mixing and matching a priority. Place stone on the countertop and bamboo on the butcher block, or inlay wood on a stone countertop. Wrap a dark granite trim around a white granite countertop. The goal is to mix textures or colors, but to avoid competing patterns.

And by all means, buy the unusual pattern or the most expensive piece of stone that is breathtaking. Purchase that piece you can’t live without. But know that those special pieces should be small and savored. Make them into treasures and place them in a master bath or powder room, say design professionals Tina Quillian and Cynde Buckles of Lynchburg Design Company Creative Interiors. Both designers love marble because it is a natural stone that dresses things up. Because is it softer than granite and can stain, they say it’s one of those special pieces ideal for the bathroom.

A rule that shall not be broken in your search for counter perfection: Personally view the entire slab you wish to purchase. “You want to know exactly what you are getting,” says Buckles. If there is a lot of visual movement in the small sample you see, you may see a tremendous variation in the slab. What may look like a green sample can turn out to be a pink countertop.

countertops-3When selecting stones, remember this: the busier the pattern, the more attention it will draw. “Always bear in mind the total effect and what is going to have to go with it,” says Buckles. That means simplifying everything else is a must. If the room is already busy, opt for stones that are plain.

Changing your countertops, says Griggs of Signature Cabinetry & Design, “is the easiest and most economical way to spruce up your room.” Admittedly, it’s not a simple task. It will put you out of your kitchen for several days, and in the beginning, the choices can seem overwhelming. In the end, the breathtaking beauty of a new countertop makes up for all the angst.

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