When Karen and Dennis Galloway decided to sell their "average" tract house in Laguna Niguel and build their dream home in a nearby gated community, there was one custom design feature they insisted on having: marble.
Built a year ago, the Galloways' 4,600-square-foot two-story Mediterranean-style house boasts a marble entryway, five marble-faced fireplaces and--the piece de resistance-- a spectacular gray and white marble bathroom complete with its own marble fireplace.
"I said, 'When I build the house, I'm going to have (marble) throughout,' " said Karen Galloway. "I love it. Certainly, I wasn't exposed to marble when I was growing up, but when you've traveled and seen beautiful homes and things, it's just expected."
She rhapsodized: "Marble is like a jewel, and it sets the room off. I always considered it like a quality accessory. A woman has a beautiful black dress on, but she accessorizes it with jewels. That, to me, is what marble does to my living room."
Stone formed as many as 2 billion years ago when heat and pressure in the earth's crust caused limestone to undergo changes in its makeup and texture, marble is the stuff that multimillion-dollar dream homes are made of.
Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst's baronial estate on a hill above San Simeon, just wouldn't be the same without its oval-shaped Neptune Pool lined with slabs of white and verd-antique marble laid in an intricate pattern.
More recently, New York hotel queen Leona Helmsley and husband Harry paid a cool $1 million for an all-marble dance floor in their 28-room Greenwich mansion, which has been dubbed a "Connecticut Taj Mahal."
But while marble is still associated with the life styles of the rich and famous, it has become much more democratic in recent years because of lower prices and increased availability.
In Orange County, as in other parts of the country, marble has become the upscale decorator item of choice for entry halls, living rooms and bathrooms.
And it's just as likely to be found in a tract house in Mission Viejo as a waterfront home in Newport Beach. (One Garden Grove woman is having 2,000 square feet of marble put in her 6,000-square-foot home--and that doesn't include the marble-faced waterfall in the entry.)
"We use a tremendous amount of marble," said Carol McMahon of Veldhuis-McMahon Interior Design in Dana Point. "It used to be strictly in custom homes, but as tract homes in Orange County get more and more expensive, tract home builders just want to show that they can compete with custom homes and use some of the same products, and that would include marble."
Added McMahon, who designs interiors for many custom homes in South Orange County and traces the dramatic increase in demand for marble over the past five years: "I think people are getting back to timeless beauty and elegance in their homes, and marble gives you that. It's nothing trendy. It's like using silk in fabric. It's a natural product. It's beautiful. It's timeless. It's God-made."
That's not to say keeping up with the Joneses is not also a factor in the growing popularity of marble in home decor.
"Marble carries an image," said Fullerton designer Jason Titus. "It's the same image that fosters the BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It's the image of: 'I have made it. I can afford it.' I'm sure that's primarily why people like it because it carries that image too.
"It's a mixed bag: It's an image of history and affluence or wealth. We can substitute 'tradition' for history too."
Kathleen Colarusso, a sales representative for Globe Marble and Tile Inc. in Anaheim, said the market for marble "has increased about a thousandfold--I'm not even exaggerating--in the past year and a half."
In the past, Colarusso said, "People thought marble was much too expensive. Granted, it used to be simply because the quarries were still hand-cutting. They still are, to an extent, but technology has picked up (where) they're now using diamond-cut blades with a high-pressure water-jet system, which cuts like a laser and gives a much cleaner cut." Experiments with cutting marble with lasers also are being made, she said.
The result: Retail marble prices as low as $7 per square foot.
"An average homeowner can now afford to put that in their entry," said Colarusso, adding that, depending on its rarity, the top end is about $40 per square foot. One of the most expensive, "sky blue" marble, which is mined only in Brazil, costs $42 per square foot.
(Marble slabs, used to fabricate furniture and showers, range from $25 to $70 per square foot for material and fabrication.)
While many people think only of white statues when marble comes to mind, Colarusso said, the color variations of marble "are just as big as nature"--everything from jade green to Italian rose. Globe Marble and Tile, which claims to be the largest importer of marble and granite in the nation, carries 136 different kinds of marble and about the same amount of granite, which sells for $12 to $80 per square foot.
It is the natural beauty of marble's streaked or mottled look that appeals to homeowners, according to Colarusso. (Marble, she said, is always 20 degrees colder than the air around it: "That's how you can tell fake from real: You touch it, it's cold.")
Marble is most commonly installed in entryways, living rooms and bathrooms and around fireplaces, but designers say it can be misused. Titus, for one, does not recommend using marble in the kitchen--either on the floor or on countertops.
"I think they're asking for trouble," he said, explaining that the acid in vinegar, lemon juice, wine and tomato juice "will just eat marble." He said one of his clients, who put marble on the kitchen floor "over my objection," spilled a bottle of vinegar, and the vinegar etched the surface off the floor.
While protective finishes are available, Titus said acidic liquids also will eat away the finish. And if the finish is on a countertop surface that gets daily use, "just the normal wear and tear of wiping it" will wear it off, he said.
Granite, which is harder than marble and will not stain, has become increasingly popular for kitchen countertops and bar tops.
"The nice thing about granite is granite can look contemporary for a contemporary kitchen or traditional for traditional kitchen," Titus said. "It depends on the color and also the way the edges are handled."
Although many homeowners mix varieties of marble, doing so risks becoming what designer McMahon calls "a hodgepodge."
"You really have to blend them well," she said.
"If it's done well, it can be effective," Titus agreed. "There are floors in Italy or France that have 10 or 12 different colors of marble in them. It's like anything: If an amateur does it, it might not come off because they don't know what they're doing."
Marble sets a tone, Titus said, that "can be as dressy as the marble is or as casual as the marble is. It has to do with the graining of it or the color tone. A pink marble or white marble is always going to be dressy because it has a feminine quality and a very French quality. It has an elegant look. A brownish color tends to be more masculine and less dressy."
And despite its upscale image, marble is not too grand for even a simple tract house, Titus said.
"You can use it effectively; it doesn't have to be grand," he said. "And in Europe, of course, in certain areas in certain times, it was a common material. In a sense, marble was as common when it was used then as vinyl tile is today. I mean it carries that ordinariness about it. It's not so expensive a material that it isn't in the reach of anyone in the middle-income area. And it's appropriate in many cases. I mean there's nothing nicer than a marble entryway.
Indeed, Costa Mesa interior designer Karen Myers Ziccardi of Interior Design Development, who is currently designing five custom residences--all with marble entryways and granite countertops--sees the current marble mania as more than just another trend.
"There are trends," she said. "However, some trends are classics. The use of marble goes back to the early Greeks and Romans. When you think about it historically, these timeless materials may go through trends in how they're used or what kind of colorization becomes inspiring at the moment, but the material itself is a classic, and anything that is a classic never really is a trend."