Remoderning Part 4: Countertops

The Modern Minute Exclusive: Remoderning Part 4: Countertops

A vintage modern kitchen

I hope you read my piece from a few months ago about modern home values in the area, and if you have any questions about it, please contact me, and I’ll be happy to help.

Also, if you’ve missed any of the other monthly special articles, I’ve included links to them at the bottom of this one so that you can catch up – thanks and welcome to all of your who have subscribed in the last month!

Last time, I wrote about lighting choices for modern homes, which you can find here. This month, I’ll be talking about counter tops.

Before I get into some recommendations on what types of materials you might want to consider if you’re remodeling a bathroom or your kitchen, let me just get this out of the way:

NO GRANITE

That’s right. I’ve said it. And now it’s out there. Granite wasn’t used as a countertop material in the middle of the 20th century, and if there’s one material that immediately triggers MCM enthusiasts, it’s granite countertops. The look is just wrong for MCM homes and so before making any decision on what you DO want to use, make sure you eliminate granite from your list of possibilities right off the bat.

Remodeling or Restoring?

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, one of the first – and biggest – decisions you have to make is whether you’re remodeling your home or restoring it. Restoration typically means that you’re going to try to get the house back to its original state. This can be incredibly challenging and very expensive, because many of the products and materials used in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s aren’t available anymore. This often means trying to find salvage from other homes that are being gutted or torn down, which also means doing lots of research all over the country and even beyond. Or trying to find new old stock (NOS) or vintage pieces from specialty dealers.

Again, you may want to do a search online to see if you can find references to your home (especially if it was designed by a prominent architect) in old newspapers and magazines. You might find photos of what your house looked like when it was first built that will show you what the lighting looked like when the house was first built.

Many of you are probably thinking about remodeling rather than restoring. You want to bring the home “up to date” in terms of some of the finishes and fixtures, but you want it to be consistent with your home’s architecture.

Fortunately, most of the countertop options that were available when MCM homes were built are still available now, save for maybe specific patterns of certain products, which I’ll get into more in a bit.

Doing It for Yourself or Doing It to Sell?

As I’ve mentioned last time, but reiterating here, the other big question you need to consider is whether you’re remodeling for yourself or to sell one day (or one day soon). If you’re doing it for yourself and don’t care about “resale value” or how the home might be viewed by others, you have a lot more freedom than if you’re remodeling to sell in the near future. While nobody can predict what home values will be a few months or a few years out, putting in countertops that go with the aesthetics and style of your home is always a good idea.

Laminate

Laminate counters on a modular MCM kitchen, designed by Ronald Petralito

Much derided these days, laminate counters were a staple of mid-century homes and kept being used well into the 1980s. Inexpensive and available in many different colors and patterns, laminate also has the benefit of being able to be applied to forms that might be difficult, impossible or cost-prohibitive in other materials. The biggest drawback to laminate is that because it’s largely plastic, it doesn’t deal with extreme heat well. But if you’re going for a really authentic mid-century modern look on a budget, or if you need to create a hard surface on a curvy component in a kitchen or bathroom, keep laminate in mind! In the example above, the edges of the countertops were also laminate, but other decorative edging, such as chrome, stainless steel, etc. was used in the mid-century era and may still be available now. While Formica is still the name that everybody knows (and still has that same amazing logo), other companies are out there and some have very MCM-looking patterns. Check out SparkleLam, Wilsonart and panolam / Nevamar just to name a few more.

Wood / Butcher Block

A butcher block section in a vintage kitchen

There are some people who just love butcher block countertops and don’t want anything else. Butcher block, often made of maple (but for an MCM house, consider walnut!), is a great surface in terms of its material qualities and tone. And, as in the example above, you can mix it with other surfaces if you don’t want a countertop that’s entirely wood. This can lead to some really nice contrasts both in material and color.

Terrazzo

A thick terrazzo bar counter mixed in with laminate countertops elsewhere in the kitchen

While Terrazzo wasn’t used extensively as a countertop material in original MCM homes, there are some instances of it, and there are plenty of terrazzo companies out there now. The biggest issues with terrazzo as a countertop material are weight and cost. At $60 / sf and above for poured or cast terrazzo, getting really creative with shapes as in the example above could get pricey, quickly. However, if your countertops are rectangular or could use any type of slab countertop product, companies such as Wausau’s Tectura Designs have both concrete and epoxy terrazzo slabs available in many different colors.

Stainless Steel

A stainless steel countertop with integrated sink and burners

Believe it or not, stainless steel was common in kitchens of the ’50s and ’60s…not just appliances (you’ll find MANY old stainless ovens built into the walls & cabinets of vintage kitchens!), but as countertops, too. I have to admit, a long stretch of stainless steel, as seen above, with integrated sinks and burners is quite a sight to behold. I’m not sure if integrating burners (whether your preference is gas, electric or induction) is still doable, but it’s worth asking a company such as Elkay, who have been making custom stainless countertops for decades.

Quartz

A remodeled MCM kitchen with quartz counters

Although quartz wasn’t around in the middle of the 20th century, it’s a good option if you want something that looks mid-century. Available in many different colors and patterns, you can get quartz counters from a number of manufacturers that mimic the looks of things like both terrazzo and concrete, and quartz is often available in either standard or honed (less glossy) finishes, so you have many options. Plus, it’s virtually maintenance free other than normal cleaning.

Tile, Marble, Soapstone & Concrete

Tile countertops in a 1970s kitchen

Another countertop surface that was quite popular in the ’60s and ’70s in particular was tile. Hard, mostly durable and available in literally thousands of textures, tones and colors, tile was the material of choice for countless kitchens and bathrooms in modern homes. The big issue with tile is that there’s the perception that it’s difficult to keep clean and sanitary because of the grout between the tile. With the various sealing products available today, both for tile and grout, it may still be a good option, especially in certain spaces, such as bathrooms for a pool area.

This kitchen features marble countertops

While granite is not a good idea in a modern home, marble was used by architects and designers from time to time in the homes of more affluent clients in particular. Beautiful colors and vein patterns make for some striking surfaces, but marble is a relatively soft stone and is also prone to staining. If you like the look of marble, consider quartz that mimics the look of it without the detrimental aspects of the real thing.

Soapstone is another material that’s been in use since early in the 20th century

Soapstone was also used as a countertop material, thanks to it being a natural material and one that withstands heat well. The biggest issue with soapstone today is that it’s expensive, and while it’s not as prone to cracking as something like granite or marble, it’s softer, so it can scratch more easily. You’ll also need to oil soapstone counters if you want them looking their best, although doing so isn’t necessary for maintenance so much as it is for looks.

Concrete can be a great choice in a modern kitchen or bathroom

The last material I’d like to mention for your consideration is concrete. More recent developments in lighter-weight cast concrete mean that countertops can be fabricated offsite and brought to your home and installed into place by just a couple of people. Concrete can also be done as a honed or matte surface if you’d rather avoid the glossy look, which I recommend doing. And if you find the right concrete fabricator, they can even make your counters so that they have some natural imperfections in them, which can make the surfaces look even more special. Concrete will crack under certain circumstances, and it’s best to seal it to prevent staining, but it’s a great-looking material whether in a kitchen or a bathroom.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s special feature. In case you missed the last few, here they are:

Part 3 – Lighting

Part 2 – Flooring

Part 1 – General Concepts

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Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use. 

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