Formica is cool again as are newer laminate and composite stone countertop materials
Once, decisions about kitchen countertops were relatively simple. Natural materials like wood or stone if you could afford them. Formica if you couldn’t.
Formica was made of layers of paper laminated with melamine and could be printed with virtually anything. “It’s new! It’s different! Smart homeowners will love it!” chirruped a 1950s ad in the Australian Women’s Weekly.
Designs ranged from the horrendous to the truly iconic. By the 1980s, the glamour had slipped. Formica became associated with cheap countertops, peeling at the edges. Now, Formica is cool again. It’s a retro thing.
These days though, you’re more likely to be offered Fenix, which is the twenty-first century’s answer to laminate countertops.
Like Formica, Fenix is made of layers of paper stuck together with resin. Then it’s heated and compressed to create what the manufacturers call a “homogenous non-porous product”.
This is achieved by a process called “Electron Beam Curing,” which is one of many examples of the impenetrable language used by those who want to sell kitchen surfaces. Fenix has a tactile matt finish and is resilient to wear and tear. “It’s an economic choice for a lot of people,” says Michael Connolly of Lomi Design. “That’d be the advantage of using a laminate.”
Delve a little deeper into the world of countertops and you’ll probably be offered engineered stone, composite stone, or quartz. All of these words describe the same product: a surface material made from natural stone or marble (between 90 and 95 pc) which is ground to a powder and mixed with bonding resin and pigments.
Manufactured in sheets, in various thicknesses, it is more hardwearing than natural stone or marble. “A lot of the composites replicate the beauty of natural stone without the headache of maintenance,” Connolly says. “What confuses people most is the profusion of brand names, each advertising their qualities.” Composite stone is also difficult to price.
Most of the production companies have a sliding scale of prices with less costly ranges offering less choice in terms of colour and finish. “The only way to get an accurate price is to get a price for your particular project in several different materials,” Connolly says.
“If you compare the starting price to top of the range, you can nearly double the prices.” In general, expect to pay less than for natural stone or marble, but more than you would for a laminate.
As a high end supplier, kitchens at Lomi Design start at around €35,000, including worktops and appliances. Although most of us will tend to spend somewhere in the order of €10,000 to €30,000, the same wisdom applies.
For example, in Connolly’s experience, people tend to underestimate the cost of worktops. “The basic rule of thumb is to calculate what you plan to spend on the cabinets, then add a third of that figure for countertops and another third for appliances.”
Silestone is one of the best known brands of composite stone. The company’s new Sunlit Days collection boasts “HybridQ+ Technology®”.
This is described as “an innovative generation of surfaces completely manufactured with renewable energy, recycled water and composed with a hybrid formulation: a new high-performance blend of premium minerals, quartz and recycled glass.”
Once you get beyond the language, it’s a composite stone made using recycled materials and with a commitment to sustainability. And the colours are lovely. The palette is inspired by the Mediterranean: salty blue, herby green and earthy red as well as the usual suspects, white and grey.
“The colours are a breath of fresh air. They’re brave and bold, but also natural and timeless,” says Denise O’Connor, architect and principal of Optimise Design.
“I like the fact that it’s a sustainable product. People are asking about that more. They used to be concerned about energy efficiency but that has moved into a wider concern about the planet. Aesthetically, what I like about the collection is the way that it’s moved away from trying to replicate marble.”
The quiet colours also open up possibilities of where you might want to use them. A countertop in green and cabinets in white, for example, would neatly reverse the typical kitchen trope of coloured cabinets and a neutral worktop. “It encourages you to think beyond the kitchen,” O’Connor says.
“You can use it anywhere that you might use tiles.” Bathrooms are the obvious one, particularly shower enclosures and sink units, but she also sees applications for the range in furniture. “You could use it in built-in cabinets, or bedside lockers, or console tables. It really broadens the scope.”
An average sized kitchen countertop in the Silestone Sunlit Days collection could cost around €3,700, depending on the thickness of the material.
There are other options. Among them, sintered stone is almost indestructible and probably the only surface on which you can confidently place a hot casserole dish. It’s made of particles of real stone, subjected to a process known as sintering which replicates the way that igneous rocks are formed. Think volcano and you’ve got the general idea.
Adding pigments to the fabrication process creates some impressive results and Dekton, which is one of the best known brands of sintered stone, has products that could easily be mistaken for marble. A Dekton countertop is impervious to heat and stains, but more likely to chip than composite stone.
It’s typically, but not necessarily, more expensive than granite or composite stone. All these products have a wide range of prices.
Then, there’s solid surface. This is another example of a confusing name for an interesting and useful product. Solid surface is a composite material typically made from a mix of powdered stone, acrylic resin, and pigments.
And it typically comes in thin sheets, which attach to an MDF frame. It’s hard to see what’s solid about that. Corian by Dupont, the company that developed the technology, is the best known example.
Unlike other composites, which come in slabs that need to be joined together, Corian can be used to create a seamless worktop with integrated sinks in virtually any colour under the sun.
But it’s not for everyone. “It’s a wonderful product – you can bend it and form it – but the surface quality isn’t one that I’d recommend for countertops,” Connolly says. “You can’t quite get away from the plastic.”
See lomi.ie, optimise-design.com and cosentino.com.