The Kitchen Enters the Stone Age


STONE usED TO BE so thick and weighty that it was inevitably associated with permanence. But a technological revolution has begun to change the ways that stone—especially marble and granite—is processed and used. Companies that manufacture machinery for stone producers in Italy have learned ways to slice stone in thinner and lighter sections, making it easier to transport and to work with. Today they use laser beams to guide their diamond-tipped saws in cutting stone more precisely than ever before. They also have mastered the use of glass fibers and epoxies to reinforce thin pieces of stone, which might otherwise crack when moved. Some of the most beautiful marble also happens to be the most fragile, and the reinforcement techniques have greatly expanded the range of marble commercially available.

The most celebrated advance was pioneered seven years ago by a company in Turin, Tecnomarmi Maiera, which devised a way to produce marble in sheets up to four feet by eight feet across, yet only a quarter inch thick. So lightweight were the new marble panels that they began to be used to line the interiors of elevators in office buildings (for example, the Transco Tower, in Houston). A variation of the new cutting techniques also came to be applied to granite, a substance so hard and dense that it had always been difficult to saw.

Thus stone became much less cumbersome to ship and install and considerably less expensive, though not so cheap as to lose all its connotations of luxury. The breakthrough perfectly suited the growing ranks of designers intent on recapturing some of the character of past architecture. Marble and granite were materials of the ages, even if they were now being supplied almost like gypsum board.

These changes primarily influenced corporate and institutional architecture. Marble sheets the size of plywood panels are on a scale different from that found in residential design. Nonetheless, stone is now a dramatic presence in American home building and remodeling. In today’s upper-middle-class homes marble or granite (most often just under an inch thick, but occasionally much thinner), or a synthetic facsimile, which offers practical advantages and may cost less, is becoming de rigueur. Nowhere is the change more evident than in the kitchen.

KITCHENS, OF COURSE, long ago ceased to be hidden away in the back corners of American houses. For about forty years designers have considered it permissible for the kitchen to be visible from the dining area, living room, or family room. In recent years, as food and cooking have become increasingly celebrated adjuncts of fashion, the kitchen has evolved into a center for socializing, a room that’s supposed to look good enough to impress guests. If Vance Packard were writing The Status Seekers today, he would have to stand by the German-made cabinetry and the restaurant-quality range to put things in proper perspective. The meal-preparation area has become an emblem of the owner’s taste and sophistication. The kitchen, it might be said, has come out of the closet.

The new stone-fabricating techniques have enabled homeowners to install rich-looking counter backsplashes of marble or granite tile for not much more money than ceramic tile would cost, according to Charles Morris Mount, a Manhattan designer who specializes in kitchens. Marble or granite floor tiles— installed occasionally in kitchens but more commonly in foyers and bathrooms— are available, by some estimates, at about the same cost as medium-priced ceramic tiles. Marble and granite run from $5.00 to $15.00, while ceramic runs from $2.00 to $10.00. (Even within a given region of the United States, costs quoted for kitchen materials and their installation vary greatly; all the price comparisons in this article should be regarded as highly approximate.) Some designers won’t put a marble or granite floor in the kitchen unless the client insists on it, since marble, being porous, tends to accumulate stains in the kitchen, and the tiles can be damaged if anything heavy falls on them. Granite, which is more dense, resists marks and breakage better, but it can be slippery. Some architects, such as Melanie Taylor, of Orr & Taylor, in New Haven, advocate the traditional “mudset” method of installing tiles on a base of cement, rather than the “thin-set" method on a layer of adhesive; this can help tile to last for decades. Marble or granite counter tops are usually installed as slabs three quarters or seven eighths of an inch thick, for greater strength, in order to eliminate grout lines, and to emphasize the character of the stone. A stone counter top, installed, will cost probably three times as much as an equivalent surface of plastic laminate.

The popularity of a product like stone might seem to contradict the pervasive recent publicity about sleek-looking “Eurostyle” kitchens. But Eurostyle is to a considerable extent Eurohype, generated by the American housing-products industry, which is always on the lookout for something new and hot. Despite the relentless Eurostyle promotional campaigns featuring cabinetry in smooth plastic laminate, consumer surveys regularly show that the majority of Americans prefer “natural” kitchens, with cabinets of wood. Louis Māckall, whose Breakfast Woodworks, in Branford, Connecticut, produces custom cabinetry for clients throughout the northeastern United States, says, “At the high end of the price scale people are trying to get away from the machine-made look.” Even chic European cabinetmakers such as SieMatic and Poggenpohl, in West Germany, produce many cabinets faced in oak, pine, cherry, and ash, some of them trimmed in a decidedly traditional mode.

When Eurostyle does make an appearance in the kitchen, it is often accompanied by stone, since the sleek expanses surfaced in plastic laminate or glossy polyester require a visual foil. Eurostyle propels the eye onto a kind of visual expressway. Once the eye has sped through all this slickness a few times, it needs to escape from the ceaseless motion and settle on something stable and restful—such as counter tops and backsplashes of marble or granite.

Stone is, however, not the material for people on a tight budget or people whose main concern is a perpetually blemish-free kitchen. Most marble and some granite will eventually suffer stains, some of which will not come out. If this prospect bothers you, you may prefer one of the new imitation-stone synthetics. In the long run, however, one of the redeeming virtues of stone is that it can stain and yet continue to look beautiful, in much the way that old wooden furniture incorporates dents and nicks into its patina. For a plastic laminate, in contrast, there is no long run; after a number of years it is junked for something new. At least that’s the difference in theory. The fact remains that the kitchen is the most frequently remodeled room of the American house, and with houses changing hands as often as they do, it is an open question as to whether stone on a work surface will in practice be preserved much longer than Formica.

ANYONE PLANNING to use stone for kitchen counters and backsplashes will need to decide, first, which kind of stone to buy. Granite is the counter-top material currently rising most rapidly in popularity, partly because of its appearance—more solid and monolithic than large-veined marble—and partly because of its durability and practicality. When its surface is polished (which is generally preferred to a dull “honed” finish, also called satin or matte), granite is one of the most impervious stones available. Cooks like the convenience of being able to put hot pots on granite. Perhaps the only enemy of granite is very hot oil, which can leave marks.

Some prefer marble for its distinctive beauty. “Marble is nature’s mistake,” says Ted Licht, of Marble Technics Ltd., a firm based in New York City that sells stone to designers. It is stone in which limestone deposits have moved and recrystallized over eons, incorporating minerals that give it enormous variety in coloring and pattern. Marble has the advantage of being good for pastrymaking. If it isn’t in the sun. it will remain cooler than room temperature; dough spread on its surface will be less likely to stick and tear.

This variety of marble is evident in the selection of tiles that is available. For example, the Marble Technics showroom. in Manhattan, displays more than sixty kinds of marble tile, ranging from solid white to watery swirls of gray to deep greens and blacks with the markings from intricate fracture lines across their surfaces. (In most cities customers can examine varieties of stone at kitchen stores, ceramic-tile dealers, and marbleand-stone dealers, listed in the Yellow Pages.)

Another decision is what kind of finish to order. An unpolished surface may absorb oils. However, acids, such as lemon juice and vinegar, can easily destroy the shine on polished marble. Even a glass of water will leave a mark. “It shows every ring, every spot,” the designer Charles Morris Mount warns. He recommends a honed finish, which doesn’t show the effects of use as readily. Many stains on marble that has a nonreflective finish can be rubbed out relatively easily with steel wool.

Vulnerability to stains and blemishes can be further reduced by choosing a variety of marble or granite that tends to hide marks. Dark, irregularly veined marble will camouflage stains better than pure-white Carrara marble. The granite most often selected by Mount is black.

A less expensive alternative is an “agglomerate" tile, containing marble, granite, or other stone chips set into an epoxy resin. If the chips are tiny, the tile, which is usually polished to a high shine, may resemble granite.

THOSE WHO WANT to approximate the look of stone but can’t tolerate its disadvantages often use Du Pont’s Corian, a solid, nonporous synthetic material that has been on the market for twenty years. The cost of installed Corian ranges from about the same as granite and marble to about 15 percent less; it’s about two to five times as expensive as plastic laminate. A kitchen knife will cut slightly into a Corian surface, but cuts probably won’t be obvious until there is an accumulation of them, since the color goes all the way through the material (unlike the color in plastic laminates). Shallow cuts can be sanded out using fine (400 grit) sandpaper or dry steel wool. Corian, which has an attractive opalescent quality, is not easily chipped or dented, and it is less easily harmed by hot objects than are plastic laminates. If it does get a surface blemish, such as a cigarette burn, the blemish can be rubbed out with an abrasive cleanser.

Interesting counter-top edges are key elements in today’s kitchen styling, and Corian offers unlimited design potential, since its edges can be formed into whatever shape the customer wants. Corian can not only assume an intricate contour but also accommodate decorative inlays of wood, metal, or other materials along its edges or on the counter top itself. For a sleek, uninterrupted appearance, a single or double sink can be formed as an integral part of a Corian counter top.

Within the past two years another imitation stone, Avonite, has come onto the market. Like Corian, Avonite is a solid, nonporous, manmade material from which surface stains can be rubbed out with cleanser. It is much lighter than stone, it is easily shaped, and it can be embellished with inlays of other materials. The Avonite Company, in Sylmar, California, says that its product usually costs about 10 to 20 percent more than Corian. The appeal is the wide array of colors and patterns. Corian comes in only four colors, all relatively pale—soft white, almond, light gray, and “dawn beige,”which is subtly veined to simulate marble. Avonite offers stone imitations—granite, marble, onyx, and “parchment stone”—in seventeen colors.

Avonite is not Corian’s only competitor. Last January, Formica Corporation bought a company that had introduced Quintessa, another material similar to Corian but available in a broader range of colors. Now renamed Formica brand 2000X (which sounds more like a sporty car than a counter top), it is being offered in white and in veined pastel shades of blue, pink, and gold as well as in beige and almond. These colors coordinate with those of the already well-accepted Formica laminate and of Formica’s ColorCore, every layer of which is colored, not just the top one.

Du Pont is responding to the competition. The company hopes to introduce by next summer at least one of a new family of veined Corian products that mimic granite, in shades of gray.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans who continue to rely on plastic laminates are not to be deprived of some semblance of stone, however distant it may be. Plastic-laminate manufacturers like Formica and Wilsonart, who a decade ago supplied the world with millions, maybe billions, of square feet of imitation butcher block, are attentively observing the shift toward stone. Last January, Wilsonart introduced its first laminate designed to look like granite.

David Embry. Wilsonart’s director of design, is sensitive to long-running questions about the desirability of one material’s imitating another. He maintains that plastic laminates can imitate granite, with its tight grain, more realistically than they have done with wideveined marble. The granite look, he says, has “taken the market by storm.”Next month Wilsonart will introduce additional varieties of granite-like plastic laminate.

For those who want genuine stone counter tops but can’t yet afford them, Mount suggests an interim measure that he has occasionally employed: installing counter tops of plastic laminate slightly lower than normal, with the idea that stone can be placed on top of them later. Another option is to have a segment of marble — enough on which to work dough — inserted into a counter top made predominantly of a less expensive material. It may not have quite the cachet of a counter entirely of stone, but you can take consolation in knowing that plastic laminate will be a lot kinder to your glassware and china.