I have a crush on Benjamin Gray.
No, I am not going to leave my husband, but I may dump my countertops. Benjamin Gray, you see, refers not to a person but rather to the color of Israeli limestone that I hope one day will replace the old, slightly warped, stark white laminate surface that “graces” my kitchen counters.
I know I am not the only one to fantasize about countertops. In my opinion, they are among the most important considerations, whether you are putting in a new kitchen or refurbishing an old one. Countertops can take up a lot of real estate, especially if you have an island. So aesthetics matter. But so, too, does function.
Granite, the hardest and most durable of the natural surfaces, has long dominated as the king of countertop surfaces. It’s beginning to lose its luster, however. “Among home buyers it doesn’t have that ‘wow’ factor that it used to have,” says Mary Lou Sage, a Long & Foster real estate agent in Alexandria. “They almost expect it now.”
Even those who choose granite are opting for honed rather than polished granite, says Matthew W. Fiehn, an architect with Barnes Vanze Architects in Georgetown. The finish is slightly rougher, with less gloss and a more natural look.
The natural look of limestone is what drew me to Benjamin Gray, which has a mottled sandy tone. However, it may not be the most practical choice for someone like me who cooks every day, says Bob Blanchard, vice president of R. Bratti Associates, a stone contractor in Alexandria. Limestone, says Blanchard, is a relatively soft, porous stone that will eventually scratch and mark. If I put a bottle of olive oil on a limestone counter and it drips, it will leave a ring.
“It’s like having a brand-new car,” Blanchard says. “The first time you get a scratch or a dent, it will bother you. But over time, it will develop character.”
That’s how Gail Hobbs-Page regards her soapstone countertops. Soapstone, like limestone, is a natural material that is prone to scuffing and scratching and to absorbing stains. Hobbs-Page doesn’t let that stop her. She is a former chef turned cheesemaker, and her farm kitchen outside Charlottesville gets lots of use.
“I cook hard,” she says. “I have made chicken and dumplings. I made an apple pie with my grandkids, and we rolled out the pie crust on the soapstone and we cut the apples on the soapstone. I have put boiling-hot pots on the soapstone. It is as tough as nails.”
Every now and again she rubs mineral oil into the soapstone to condition it. “That’s all the maintenance it needs,” she says. She likes the weathered patina it has developed.
The surface with the most cachet these days? Marble.
“Marble used to account for 10 percent of our kitchen business,” says Blanchard. “Now it’s up to 30 percent.” The most popular marble, he adds, is white with a honed rather than polished finish. Marble’s popularity is growing in spite of the fact that it is more porous and less durable than granite. “It’s the trend,” he says. “Right now it’s all about white marble.”
Wood is also enjoying a revival as a kitchen surface, especially on an island, says Fiehn of Barnes Vanze. Not basic butcher-block wood, but reclaimed wood, such as old chestnut, with lots of character. It adds warmth to the room, but because it is scarce, it isn’t the type of wood you’d want to take your knives to.
Natural isn’t the only way to go. There are a growing number of synthetic surfaces, including some “green” options that are made from recycled materials. Fiehn says materials such as CaesarStone, a composite of crushed quartz and resins; IceStone, made from recycled glass; and PaperStone, made from compressed recycled paper and petroleum-free resin, are slowly gaining ground. Their bright colors and speckled terrazzo-like appearance are popular among clients with modern tastes, Fiehn says.
If money is not an issue, you might want to opt for a French product called Pyrolave, which is glazed and fired lava stone. It is, essentially, a giant, made-to-order glazed tile. Although it’s a durable surface and comes in a spectrum of gorgeous warm colors, it must be ordered and shipped from France and costs upward of $300 per square foot. In comparison, CaesarStone, PaperStone and IceStone prices per square foot range from $70 to $125, as do limestone, soapstone, granite and marble.
The majority of people are still opting for natural materials, says Blanchard. What they really want, says Fiehn, is “white marble with the durability of granite.” There is, in fact, a color of granite called White Fantasy that resembles white marble and fits the bill.
I, on the other hand, tend toward the Gail Hobbs-Page school of thinking. I don’t mind a surface that looks well used and well loved. I may shop around a little longer, especially among some of the eco-friendly choices. But I still have my eye on Benjamin Gray.