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Publication Date: 2018-10-30

Design Insights

Matthew Quinn on Surfaces to Make Your Kitchen a Star

All of my projects begin with studying my clients and the architecture of the spaces to be designed. After I create a layout that functions perfectly and integrates seamlessly into their home, the next step is surface selections. This is one of the most fun parts of the process, and has a huge impact on any design. I am obsessed with surfaces, and consider them the building blocks of the kitchen or bath.

A kitchen designed by Quinn with wood floors, an island in a contrasting wood, and countertops of Champagne Quartzite. Photo: Mali Azima

The hierarchy of material selection should begin with the floor. I like to start the design process by selecting the material that has the fewest options, and finish with the material that has the greatest abundance of selections. The floor is the foundation and the first paragraph in the story about the design of a home. In kitchens and, surprisingly, in about a third of the bathrooms I design, the most popular floor material is wood, because it provides warmth, can typically be refinished, and is easier to stand on for extended periods than other options. I like to use rugs in front of the cooktop and sinks to reduce wear and tear on the wood in these high traffic areas.

The table of glazed lava stone is by Pyrolave; the contrasting countertop is by Cambria.

Climate and location can also impact flooring selections in homes that have to cope with sand, snow, water, or families that have pets. Stone or tile flooring is more popular in these situations, as it is more durable and water-resistant. I typically encourage my clients to introduce a pattern in the flooring, such as a chevron, parquet, or herringbone, as I feel that the investment, and the resulting visual impact in these spaces, is greater and more memorable than if they were used in a foyer or dining room.

A large of slab of natural marble makes a stunning backsplash. Photo: Mali Azima

After the flooring has been selected, I shift my focus to my favorite material selection, countertops. Countertops are the punching bag of the kitchen and bathroom! There was a time when we had to decide whether function or beauty was the most important feature. Today, we can easily have both, and the options are almost endless.

A Champagne Quartzite countertop in a honed finish. Photo: Mali Azima

Cost, maintenance, size, movement, color, durability, and finish all impact the final decision. When I walk through a slab yard brimming with stones from around the world, I become mesmerized by the veins, agates, and crystals and find myself trying to determine what occurred in nature to create these amazing pieces of art. Quartz countertop materials, manufactured by companies such as Cambria, are also artful and beautiful, however they many not necessarily be one of a kind. 

A dramatic countertop by Cambria. Photo: Marco Ricca

I always prefer honed or leathered countertops over polished ones, as I like their tactile feel. They also don’t reflect the light from above into your eyes when you are cooking. I actually chose stone tops for my own kitchen because I loved the color and the movement, even though I knew that it would require my fabricator to clean and reseal them once a year.

A bar table of Kalahari Quartzite contrasts with tiles by Walker Zanger. Photo: Mali Azima

I chose quartz and wood countertops in the kitchen of my second home because I did not want visiting friends and family to have to worry about staining or harming them. I selected quartz for the bathrooms in both homes because in one I had stone tile floors that had so much personality and movement that I wanted the quartz countertops to serve as a quiet and complementary backdrop, and in the other, durability was the decisive factor.

A backsplash of ceramic tile laid in a herringbone pattern. Photo: Mali Azima

Once the countertops are selected, we move to the backsplash or wall tiles. Smoothness, durability, and ease of cleaning are a little less vital with this selection. Most importantly, I believe backsplashes and wall tiles should cover entire planes, not just sections of a wall. I have never understood why anyone would visually cut a room in half by stopping a kitchen backsplash just 18” above the countertop, or end the shower tile at the height of the curtain rod or shower glass door. I would much rather my clients tile a wall from countertop to ceiling, or floor to ceiling, using a less expensive tile than cover only part of a  wall in an expensive tile. And if my client tries to convince me to use the more expensive tile in a frame behind the cooktop, well, I will just have to excuse myself from the meeting.

A backsplash of Impressions tiles by Matthew Quinn for AKDO. Photo: Marco Ricca

Logic comes into play, too, when making a wall tile selection. I would not recommend a tile with lots of texture or dimensionality behind a cooktop or on a shower wall where it might exfoliate you every time you rub against it. I also prefer larger tiles in those spaces, so there is less grout to maintain. All in all, I think wall tile can be more adventurous, colorful, vividly patterned, or interesting than the flooring or countertop you choose, as it is typically the easiest to change later when your kitchen or bathroom needs some refreshing. 

Tile can even be used effectively on the ceiling. Photo: Mali Azima

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