Kitchen counter evolution: what's old is new

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | February 13, 2013

No matter what kind of appliances you choose or what style cabinets you install, countertop space is one of the most important aspects of any kitchen. Ample room to prepare and serve food is essential to the serious cook, and the countertop material can be just as important as the square footage. From rudimentary wooden slabs that served as countertops thousands of years ago, to the modern and sleek lines of stainless steel and recycled glass, this must-have kitchen feature has evolved through the millennia.

The earliest kitchen counters: totally natural

Some of the earliest countertops were made of a very common resource: wood. Highly durable and easy to repair or replace if necessary, wood countertops could stand up to serious punishments from knives and heat. Though water stains could be an issue with untreated wood, soon seasoned cooks were learning to seal the wood with mineral oils and waxes, thus creating an even more durable work surface.

Tile has been a home-building staple for thousands of years. Tile was used on floors and roofs, as well as inside the home for both decorative and functional uses. Tile countertops were durable and could be counted on to stand up to water, burns and cuts. Though the first tile options were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them, soon they were widespread enough that tile became the inexpensive countertop option of choice.

Natural stone countertops were also available for those who had money to burn. Slabs of stone, such as granite, limestone, marble or soapstone, could be polished to a high shine and installed over closed cabinet bases, or situated on a tabletop and used as a rudimentary kitchen island.

Laminate: counter culture?

Laminate countertops were a game-changer. Built to be highly durable and inexpensive, they marked a significant step in kitchen design and style. Originally created in 1912 as insulation for electrical wires, laminate and other thermal plastics quickly became useful for a wide variety of household purposes, and from the 1930s was used for kitchen counters. But it wasn't until the 1950s post-WWII housing boom that laminate became a highly desirable countertop material.

Some laminates were designed to look like wood, but others went all-out in the color department, with shades from bright primary colors to muted earth tones. As the demand rose, so did the prices; in fact, laminate was so desirable in the 1950s that a metal and chrome dinette set topped with laminate cost four times more than the same set made of wood!

By the 1960s, prices had started on a downward trend, turning laminate into one of the most affordable options. The durability has been well-proven over the years; today, it is not unusual to see an old-fashioned 1970s kitchen with a faded, but still quite serviceable, laminate countertop.

Modern materials for serious kitchens

Serious restaurant cooks have long praised stainless steel as an excellent choice for food prep, but the trend didn't make its way into residential homes until the late 1940s. After World War II ended, all the steel that had been poured into military products was now freed up for other uses, and stainless steel cabinets and countertops were quickly incorporated into residential kitchens.

The use of stainless steel also opened the door for the use of other countertop materials in home kitchens such as copper, zinc or aluminum. Solid surface, engineered stone and concrete also burst onto the scene in the 1980s and 1990s. In the last few decades, homeowners with an eye toward eco-friendly materials have made once-unusual options like recycled glass countertops and even bamboo or paper, more sought-after.

Trends go 'round and 'round

As with most materials used in home building, there is a season for everything -- and that season comes around time and time again.

The use of wood and butcher-block is still common, though today's versions are well-sealed and require much less maintenance than their ancient counterparts. Natural stone countertops have become a luxurious and sometimes expensive option, while tile has remained inexpensive and is often a great option for a starter kitchen. Even laminate, the material that fell out of style a few decades after it burst onto the scene, is making a comeback as retro along with offering new styles, colors and options.

It's safe to say that within the next several years, there will be rampant buzz about the "next big thing" in kitchen countertops; but even as fresh looks and materials enter the market, the old classics continue to evolve and remain popular options for that all-important kitchen workspace.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist who has spent over twenty years writing about home improvement, education, relationships and medical and health topics.