If you want a quick kitchen makeover, change the countertops. They're among the first features in a room that catch the eye, and now there are more creative options available than ever.
"What people are doing with their kitchens and counters is ingenious," says Kay Morrison, professional organizer and owner of The Occasional Wife. "One of my clients painted her countertops in chalkboard paint and she writes inspirational messages to her family on it every morning."
Morrison says that in the past decade, she's seen far more kitchens with beautiful design features and art, further reinforcing their status as the home's main social hub. "I'm finding that people are doing two things in their kitchens: They are making them incredibly family-friendly and functional, but at the same time making them pieces of artwork," she says. "What they are doing with their backsplashes is unbelievable. The kitchen is becoming more of a gallery space than it used to be."
In recent years, the number of countertop options has skyrocketed, with natural, man-made and combination surfaces to fit every aesthetic and budget. The uses of countertops have expanded, too. Their days as strictly food-prep stations are over. They're serving double duty as surfaces for dining, working, crafts and more. In many homes, the dining counter or island has replaced the traditional kitchen table. Some features — including computer, homework or craft stations — have little to do with cooking or eating, but still flow into the overall kitchen design.
The most popular countertop for new and renovated homes is natural stone. This includes quartz, granite, marble, soapstone, limestone, slate and others.
"The color and stone options have expanded dramatically," says Rene LaBruyere, president of LaBruyere Stone in Mandeville. "Now there is a natural stone called quartzite which is gorgeous and comes in more vivid colors; it looks like an artist took his brush and painted these slabs. Marble is not just your standard three white marbles anymore, and it can be sealed really well to prevent stains, making it usable in the kitchen. There is another product called crystalline stone where they put pigments in the stone to create incredibly brilliant colors."
Homeowners and designers are getting creative with the new options — mixing stone types or colors in the same kitchen or even on the same counter, or playing with the thickness and texture of the stone. "We can do a tremendous variety on edges," LaBruyere says. "We've made things out of the stone itself, and we have a technique called waterfalling," where the countertop material extends down the sides to the floor. "We can do it thicker on the perimeter, or we can do a different color or stone on the perimeter. I've had customers who want tremendous contrast and others who want it to flow visually."
For people who like a more weathered look, there are special surfacing techniques like one called "leathering," which takes the shine off the stone and gives it a texture like smooth hide, LaBruyere says.
"Instead of marble being polished like you normally see, the marble could come honed (with a matte texture). ... It fits New Orleans so well," LaBruyere says. "Clients want ... that old-school look, to eventually look like Cafe Du Monde, where every stain and every nick is a memory."
Ten Types of Countertops: Pros and Cons
PROS: Extremely durable; heat-resistant; can be stain-resistant with proper sealing; usually cut in one slab (without seams); variety of color choices; each natural stone surface is unique; some stones (such as slate or soapstone) can be fabricated into sinks and backsplashes to match the countertop.
CONS: Must be sealed periodically; heavy; needs stone cleaner; porous; expensive; some stone surfaces can scratch or pick up stains and watermarks if not cleaned immediately; etches with acidic foods; can dull or nick cutlery, china or glassware.
Plastic Laminate (Formica)
PROS: Lightweight, resilient, waterproof and long-lasting; available in hundreds of colors, patterns and textures; does not require special cleaning solutions; affordable.
CONS: Can peel or become damaged, dulled or marked with time; prone to burn marks; easy to cut or scratch; can't be used with undermount sinks.
PROS: Gentle on cutlery, glassware and china; usually affordable; can be used as a surface for food preparation and cutting; many wood countertops are made with recycled/green technology.
CONS: High maintenance; can dent, scratch and chip; usually expensive, though prices vary; prone to water and heat damage; may require refinishing over time.
Recycled Plastic Solid Surfaces
PROS: Can have a seamless appearance; durable and easily repairable; stain-resistant; affordable; come in hundreds of colors and patterns; can create sinks and backsplashes out of the same material; scratches can be easily sanded out.
CONS: Vulnerable to heat and scratches.
PROS: Scratch-, stain- and acid-resistant; resembles stone; nonporous; doesn't require sealing; customizable; easy to maintain.
CONS: Softer than stone; lacks the unique appearance of natural stone; not heatproof; expensive.
PROS: Heat-, moisture- and stain-resistant; damaged tiles can be replaced; easily customized; affordable; lightweight; can integrate with backsplash.
CONS: Grout joints can stain and be hard to keep clean; tiles can get broken, cracked or chipped; uneven surface.
PROS: Precast counters can be easily customized for shape, size, texture, color and more; durable; heat-resistant; more affordable than stone; resembles natural stone.
CONS: Heavy; requires periodic sealing; cast-in-place counters can curl or dry unevenly and be messy or inconvenient to cast; can develop cracks; sealer can be burned or scratched; can change appearance over time; customized installation gets expensive.
PROS: Durable and long-lasting; hygienic; heat-, water- and stain-resistant; flows easily into stainless-steel sinks and appliances; easy to clean and maintain; helps reflect light.
CONS: Prone to dents and scratches; shows fingerprints; expensive; noisy.
PROS: Durable; easy to maintain; scratch-, stain- and heat-resistant; wide choices of color, texture and appearance; environmentally friendly.
CONS: Requires regular sealing; limited distributors; expensive; etches with acidic foods; edge options are limited; can wear down and expose glass particles.
PROS: Very durable; stain- and heat-resistant; environmentally friendly; affordable.
CONS: Limited colors; requires sealing; not heatproof; can scratch and darken over time.