Kitchen island a family magnet

Want to spice up your kitchen? Look to the island countertop, where mixing and matching, with unique materials, is becoming the norm.

The kitchen island has evolved into the main entertainment and eating area in many kitchens. Parties often revolve around the island and kids congregate there for snacks and homework.

With all the attention on the island, many homeowners want a countertop with some drama.

In many cases, the answer is to use a different color, pattern or material on the island countertop. If the main countertop is cream-colored granite, for example, the island countertop might be a sleek black granite. Take this concept a step further and the island countertop is made from a different material than the main countertop.

Among the popular materials for an island are granite, quartz, solid surface, marble and wood.

The most common way to achieve some impact is by mixing and matching the same material, with the island receiving more attention. The island countertop may have a bold or contrasting color or pattern or a beveled edge.

Granite remains a top seller for countertops overall. It is durable and has a dramatic and elegant look. The price of granite is much lower today than it was five years ago, making it an easy choice for many homeowners, said Alan Zielinski, owner of Better Kitchen Inc. in Niles.

Even those who choose a less expensive material for the main countertop sometimes splurge on granite for the island. They may employ a neutral laminate or a solid surface for the main countertop and use a dramatic granite slab for the island.

Some homeowners are pushing the envelope further by adding wood and other higher-maintenance materials on the island. While many people would cringe at the thought of adding a rich mesquite or mahogany wood near their main sink, they might easily add it on an island.

Wood can warp and buckle over time from exposure to water seepage and spills, but it adds a rich, natural look in the right setting. Those who use their islands for seating and food staging are more likely to try wood. Those with a sink on the island might want a material that can handle water spills.

Some woods also are used to create a large chopping-block area. Maple and walnut are desirable for that purpose.

When selecting an unusual material for the countertop, homeowners should consider their cooking styles and family routine. Highly porous materials, such as marble, are best left for a countertop that is not the main work space, for example. Or it can be used for a small baking area on the island.

"Everybody loves marble and the look of marble," said Mia Stark, design manager for Greenview Homes. "It depends on how well things are kept clean."

There also are unique ways to use tried-and-true granite. While many homeowners equate granite with a shiny finish, there are other ways to finish the stone. Granite can be honed, which creates a muted, Old World look.

This type of countertop will not provide the glitz and shine of polished granite, but it will add subtle elegance. Plus, the countertop will be easier to keep clean.

The texture of the stone also can make a difference in the kitchen design. There is "brushed granite," where the stone has more texture and carries a sheen that is between a honed or polished stone.

"It's a beautiful look," said Mitch Goldstein, president of Oak Park Kitchens. "It gives the countertop some texture, but you can still put glasses or anything down on it."

Brushed granite, which costs about 20 percent more than polished granite, also reflects light differently and requires less maintenance than other stone finishes.

"With the polished granite, if you don't clean it every day, you'll see the fingerprints," Goldstein said.

Another way to make the island stand out is by adding a thicker countertop in that area. While 1 1/4 inch is the standard thickness for most countertops, some homeowners add a 2- or 2 1/2-inch countertop on the island.

"It really dresses up the countertop," Zielinski said. "Visually, the weight draws your eyes to the island."

This can be achieved with a solid piece of material or with a thicker edge treatment that adds a similar effect. It is less costly to add a thicker edge than pay for a whole countertop that is 2 1/2 inches thick.

"This is one way you are able to cheat, but nobody knows it," Zielinski said.

Among the other countertop options are:

*Limestone -- a rustic stone with cream, tan, orange and sometimes blue colors.

*Jerusalem stone -- similar to limestone, but less porous. It combines the durability of granite with the smoothness of marble.

*Soapstone -- a soft, elegant look in shades of blue, green and gray.

*Slate -- highly resistant to heat and comes in hues of green, blue, red and gray. Slate can scratch easily.


Allison E. Beatty is a Chicago-area freelance writer. If you have questions or information to share regarding new home buyers' product and design choices, write to Choices c/o Chicago Tribune, New Homes Section, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611. Or