WE ASK A LOT of our kitchen countertops. We gather around them, work at them, prep food on them, eat on them—and these days we also seem to think our counters should say something about us. So, given the kaleidoscopic array of options on the market, how do you know which material suits you? In kitchen design as in all relationships it comes down to compatibility. Pride yourself on hard-nosed practicality? You’ll likely love clean, indestructible quartzite. Millennial fashionista? Terrazzo beckons. We asked a few of our favorite design experts to play matchmaker with a varied lineup of countertop materials, personalities and budgets. Here’s what shook out.
If You’re Cost-Conscious
Want to avoid the hefty install costs that come with materials like marble? Tile countertops (from $10 a square foot) can be a smart workaround, said Beth Dotolo of Seattle-based Pulp Design Studios. But beware: Grout gets grimy fast. For a refined, durable look, opt for large-format tile that’s been rectified to avoid large grout lines. Houston designer Marie Flanigan, who just completed an island using 12-inch-by-24-inch reclaimed limestone tiles, concurred. “People think of those clunky 4-inch squares we grew up with,” she said, “but if you choose wisely, tile can get you the beauty of natural stone without the price tag of a slab.”
If You’re a Modernist
For a sleek, midcentury look, stainless steel countertops (from $55 a square foot) are New York kitchen-cabinetry designer Christopher Peacock’s choice. They require custom fabrication, so they’re not a budget option—but besides Machine Age good looks, they have a lot to recommend them. They’re germ-resistant, easy to clean and impervious to stains and rust.
If You’re a Minimalist
When it’s perfectly seamless simplicity you’re after, man-made, “solid surface” workhorses like Corian (from $40 a square foot) are hard to beat, said Marianne Brown of Salt Lake City’s W Design Collective. “If I’m using Corian, I always stick to solid colors and straight lines, because decorative edges can definitely make it look dated,” she added. Another nifty trick? Match the color of your countertop to your cabinets for a sleek monochromatic effect.
If You’re a Neat Freak
Do even the tiniest blemishes make you hyperventilate? Quartzite counters (from $50 to over $200 a square foot) could be the answer. Slabs of it come in a range of hues, from brown to blue to bright white, and include all kinds of movement veining. “Quartzite is the most durable natural stone, harder than granite, so we use it all the time when a client needs something heat- and scratch-resistant and nearly indestructible,” said Ms. Flanigan.”
If You’re a Glamazon
“Right now, if I wanted to go all-out glamour, I’d go for brass counters,” said Ms. Brown (from $95 a square foot). As with stainless steel, you need custom fabrication—but as long as the brass is sealed and lacquered, it should be durable and relatively easy to maintain. “
the former creative director of J.Crew, had them put in her kitchen,” noted Ms. Brown, “and the effect is warm and stunning.”
If You’re an Anglophile
Do you pepper conversation with words like “chuffed” and “splendid”? Go batty for British cabinet makers like Plain English and DeVOL? Then you can’t go wrong with a milky expanse of honed limestone (from $30 a square foot) or Bianco Carrara marble (from $50 a square foot), “traditionally used in the work kitchens of English country houses,” explained Nancy Epstein, CEO and founder of Artistic Tile. Just make sure you’re ready to embrace “downstairs” patina: Compared with hard polished stone, soft, open-pored limestone and marble are particularly vulnerable to scratching, etching and staining.
If You’re a DIY-er
Are you itching to give your rental kitchen a simple face-lift? Or maybe you’re just the handy type. For Charleston, S.C., designer Alyse Eisenberg of Studio Alyse, butcher block (from $35 a square foot) is an accessible solution with big payoff. “Butcher block is a classic material that’s great for small spaces, easy to get cut for installation and available everywhere from IKEA to big-box home-improvement stores,” she said. “Though it takes some upkeep, if you seal it well with mineral oil, it can absolutely look high-end.”
If You’re a ’Gram Master
If it’s essential that your counters really pop on your Instagram grid, consider terrazzo (from $60 a square foot), said Ms. Eisenberg. Concrete Collaborative, based in New York, makes terrazzo slabs in customized palettes of grays, blushes and blues. “They incorporate chunks of alabaster marble, so you still get some of that marble look. They really are like adding makeup to your kitchen.”
If You’re a Trendsetter
Popular among buzzy European designers like London’s Beata Heuman, lava stone (from $250 a square foot), is made from slabs of volcanic stone that have been enamel glazed and fired at high heat. The process yields a porcelain-like crazing and is extremely durable. Available in countless custom hues, nonporous and resistant to extreme heat and cold, the material is novel in the U.S., with most suppliers in Europe. Shipping costs and few knowledgeable installers make it very expensive.
If You’re a Wild Child
Want to stand out from the pack? Though traditional black, brown, and green granite countertops—which scream 1990s—have fallen out of fashion, Jamie Nusser of Denver-based J Designs suggests seeking out vibrant or deeply veined granites like Sodalite Blue (from $276 a square foot) or Copacabana Black (from $85 a square foot) that have a one-of-a-kind appearance and “look like a work of art built into the kitchen,” she said. But remember: Keep the rest of your finishes restrained, so the countertops can be the star.
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