Countertops: Look for form and function

Natural and manufactured materials abound. And many kitchens feature more than one type.

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Think about intended uses when choosing a countertop. Here, the island is surfaced with inviting wood, conducive to casual dining or a conversation center, while workstations for food preparation and cleanup need more utilitarian tops.

When you remodel a kitchen, there are literally dozens of decisions to make. But none seems as intimidating or fraught with peril as choosing countertops.

At first, this doesn't seem to make much sense. There are at least as many options for appliances and cabinets, their costs are often higher, and their features are just as varied and complex.

But appliances can be swapped out easily, and once you get a handle on the material choices and finish options for cabinets, that decision proves to be a straightforward one. In some kitchen renovations, the existing cabinets can be renewed with paint, new doors and drawer fronts, or new hardware.

Countertops are different, though - large surfaces that make one of the biggest style statements in a kitchen. And whether you're preparing a holiday meal for family or simply enjoying your morning coffee and the newspaper, your connection with your countertops is a direct one.

From their color and cleanability to the tactile sensations on your fingertips, they involve nuances that can make you love 'em or hate 'em.

Complicating matters further is that at this stage of countertop evolution, there's hardly a bad one in the bunch. Crazy experiments with papier-mache or moose pelts might have emerged somewhere along the way, but by now the survivors have all been thoroughly vetted, and newcomers have to run the marketplace gauntlet before showrooms will pitch them as the latest and greatest.

Standbys such as marble slabs, ceramic tile, hardwood and high-pressure laminates, while still plentiful and worthy, now share space with honed granite, stainless steel, engineered quartz, concrete, and solid-surface materials made from plastic resins, as well as a handful of other high-tech engineered materials.

Aside from the obvious benefit of having more options, this steadily growing field has yielded more competitive pricing and happens to dovetail nicely with an increasingly popular design trend - using more than one countertop material in the same kitchen.

It doesn't really matter if you can't narrow your choice to a single favorite. You can simply pick two or three that give you the looks and features you want.

If your kitchen is big enough to have specialized work zones such as a baking center or a stir-fry station, the countertops can be selected accordingly. A laminated maple block is flour-friendly and great for working bread dough, while stainless steel is a tough and practical choice for the hot oils used in wok cooking.

Newer generations of high-pressure laminates, sold under brands such as Formica, NevaMar, Wilsonart and others, can mimic the most exotic natural materials or offer a unique contemporary look that doesn't pretend to be anything else. Though the best new varieties are pricier than their simpler predecessors, laminates still represent one of the most affordable choices in countertops.

Even the options for "natural" materials aren't as simple as they used to be. Polished-granite slabs have been a favorite of homeowners for at least a decade now, but honed varieties - with a matte rather than a gloss finish - have an understated look that often works better with traditional styles. And now, modular granite tile and edging systems, as well as prefab granite overlay systems (Granite Transformations is one example) give you the look without the bulk, weight and cost of slab stone.

The style or tone of your kitchen will likely drive some of the decisions you make about countertops. Virtually all the mainstream options are heat- and stain-resistant, and most will scratch from direct knife cuts but otherwise fare well in use. (One solution: Make the use of cutting boards a habit.)

But not all can pull off a particular period or historical look in a vintage home, or create a contemporary industrial flavor for a new urban loft.

Ceramic tile, although out of favor among some folks, excels at conjuring a cottage or arts-and-crafts decor.

Aiming for the simple charm of a centuries-old European farmhouse? Include some Carrara marble with its wispy gray streaks and creamy white tones. Or try natural soapstone or an engineered version such as FireSlate. Sure, you'll get some stains or scuffs occasionally, but spotless perfection is overrated, especially when it comes to a kitchen's emotional appeal.

If your design sensibilities lean toward the future rather than the past, splurge for some brushed stainless steel (polished is a maintenance nightmare and eventually gets scuffed anyway) or custom concrete, or the blackest polished granite you can find, or some of the eye-popping bright colors available in engineered-quartz panels.

Mixing three countertop materials can create a really interesting look, but be sure to establish a hierarchy so they aren't competing for attention. Pick one to be clearly dominant in volume and effect, then use the others more sparingly to define separate zones or work stations.

This not only makes more aesthetic sense, it might help your budget. Let the more affordable choices cover the biggest areas, and splurge for the high-end goods on an island or work station that won't need as much square footage.

Basic laminate countertops comprise the entry price point at about $20 to $30 per square foot installed. Premium granite, engineered quartz, and solid-surfacing materials represent the higher end, ranging from $75 to about $200 per square foot installed. Keep in mind that you pay for fabrication time as well as raw materials, so complex custom work will always cost more.

Even if you don't choose to mix materials, try to vary countertop heights so work zones accommodate different activities as needed when sitting or standing.

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