They’re chopped and spilled on, do double-duty as food-prep and dining surfaces, and act as homework desks and race-car tracks on the fly. Luckily, the newest countertop materials can stand up to it all—and look good doing it.
Time-tested and resale-approved, natural stone tops homeowners’ most-wanted lists. Luxurious marble and granite rank highest in demand (price, too!), but these aren’t the stones of yesteryear.
“It used to be that people liked a uniformly speckled or granulated look, but that can read as an engineered product,” says Stacy Thompson, an interior designer and the owner of Compass Design in Indianapolis. “Now, people see the beauty in the natural look, and they gravitate toward something with more movement.”
Veiny slabs with twists and turns act as ready-made artwork; for a muted look, consider a honed (matte) finish instead of the traditional polish. (Fair warning: It requires more frequent sealing than polished material.) Thompson also suggests playing with thickness and edging. Stone processors can sandwich layers together for a thick, seamless edge or carve out decorative borders.
“Quartz has taken the market by storm,” Thompson says. “When clients want the appearance of natural stone but don’t have the budget, I steer them toward quartz. It’s available in so many aesthetics, plus it has a low carbon footprint.”
Quartz is available in solid slabs, but most countertops are engineered quartz products like Cambria, Caesarstone and Zodiaq, offering the look of cut stone for less. Practically indestructible, quartz is ultrastrong and doesn’t need a sealant (hot pans can damage quartz, however, so break out the trivets!). The nonporous material resists stains, meaning easy wipe-ups and zero maintenance.
Cork can do a lot more than plug your wine bottle; it can cover your countertops. Tiny specks of recycled cork bark are compressed into a high-density material that’s heat- and water-resistant, requires little maintenance and can be resanded and resurfaced, just like wood.
And cork might just be the most family-friendly substance around because it is naturally antibacterial, and it has sound-dampening qualities that can tame the noise of the dinnertime rush. It’s wallet-friendly, too.
It’s true: The first concrete counters were heavy and gray—a look that harmonized mostly with industrial, modern design. But the composite material has evolved into one of the most versatile substances around; it can be tinted or stained, stamped with texture or inlaid with small tiles or rocks. And because installers pour the concrete on-site, countertops can take any shape imaginable, curves and all. One caveat: Concrete stains easily, so Thompson suggests frequent sealing, or using the material as an accent—say, on the kitchen island.
“Stainless steel is very durable—that’s why restaurants use it—but it’s expensive, and it’s hard to find someone who does it well,” Thompson says. Consider pewter instead: An alloy of several metals, pewter is darker and softer than steel, but still strong. (It does require regular polishing.)
The “it” factor: A natural, rich patina develops over time, making pewter a tempting choice in traditional, country and Old World-style kitchens and a conversation element in contemporary ones.