Inspired by precast concrete, designers cast personal effects into permanent kitchen fixtures.
By Carol Brzozowski
Bits of CDs are embedded in a countertop at MTV’s headquarters in New York City. In a residential bathroom in Indianapolis, a countertop inlaid with plastic brushes and combs is part of a stunning finish. Bathroom visitors at a Silicon Valley home wash their hands on a sink set in a countertop embedded with computer chips.
An artistic, personalized approach to countertops is all the rage, thanks to a precast concrete process developed years ago first to debut in the high-end consumer stratosphere but now reaching the middle class mass market.
Proof that the personalized approach works
Designer Fu-Tung Cheng, an industry pioneer who operates Cheng Design in Berkeley, Calif., wrote “Concrete Countertops” in 2002. Some 15,000 copies of the book sold within six weeks; it’s currently in its eighth printing. His new book, “Concrete at Home,” expands the concept to floors, walls and fireplaces. He also maintains extensive information on www.concreteexchange.com.
Don Reynolds, president of RCS Contractor Supplies in Noblesville, Ind., a supply house for the concrete industry specializing in decorative concrete supplies and technologies, installs precast concrete countertops and now teaches others how to do his job.
His workshops are so popular he is turning people away. He also gets five to 10 requests weekly for concrete countertops or supplies, passing the leads to other like-minded contractors.
“Years ago, when magazines would feature photographs of precast concrete countertops, they would say ‘this is a counter by Buddy Rhodes or Fu-Tung Cheng.’ Now they don’t even mention the manufacturer because it’s become so commonplace,” said Susan Andrews, vice president of Buddy Rhodes Studio in San Francisco.
It wasn’t always so. It took pioneers years to perfect the method, which Cheng and a few other California companies started 20 years ago from an artistic approach rather than strictly a manufacturing basis.
“We’ve been under the radar for the last 15 years, doing artistic manufacturing for high-end clients,” he said.
Cheng pioneered the idea of “liquid stone,” introducing the concept in 1997 in response to magazine articles touting concrete countertops as cast-in-place against the cabinetry, which Cheng found to be “crude.”
The work caught the eye of concrete contractors who figured they could pour something akin to a sidewalk, lift it up 3 feet, put it in a box and make it a countertop.
That created a counter-prevailing direction in the market, with workers making rustic, almost crude-looking products.
“On the other end, we were doing work that was elaborately molded, shaped and intricately colored,” Cheng said. “With acid staining, surface treating and troweling, you can only get so much refinement.”
Cheng’s peer, Buddy Rhodes, has been dubbed in the industry as “the father of concrete countertops.”
Rhodes’ journey began as a ceramist in the mid-1980s when getting kiln time at the San Francisco Art Institute was nearly impossible.
“He was making bricks out of clay, so he started making them out of concrete, which didn’t need to be fired,” Andrews said. “Then he started using concrete decoratively, doing interior design work and making a concrete countertop.”
Rhodes’ first countertops were cast-in-place. He changed his production methods to precast after teaming up with Cheng. Now Rhodes teaches the method to designers and architects.
Rhodes’s signature look is a “pressed” or “veined” finish. The product must be cast upside down to achieve the sought-after style.
Unlike other countertop fabricators, Rhodes does not pour the concrete wet and use a vibrating table to eliminate holes, but rather uses a dry mix packed into molds and finishes it either right side up or upside down.
Like Cheng, Rhodes’ customized work caught on in the high-end market first.
Now precast concrete countertops have taken the interior design industry by storm. With precasters, interior designers and decorators looking to get into the business for the first time, training classes are in high demand.
“Precasters tire of doing the same work and want to do something artistic and different,” Cheng said. “You are putting out a product people value over time. It’s solid, sculpted and contoured. Today, most homes are lacking this kind of natural product. Everything is faux.”
Andrews says the newly achieved mainstream appeal has two explanations. “Some people say it’s because they want to be different than their neighbors, and some people say they want to be just like their neighbors,” she said.
A personalized touch is the big selling point for concrete countertops. Clients of Troy Adams, president of Troy Adams Design in Los Angeles, often ask for embedded logos such as the Asian symbol for “destiny.” Others ask for mother of pearl.
“It’s endless what you can embed into the concrete,” Adams said. “It really becomes personal.”
While precasters are responding to public demand for countertops, another group is paying attention: specifiers, engineers and architects. Cheng says many of them use precast concrete countertops in their own homes or offices.
Case in point: Ratcliff Architects in Emeryville, Calif., specializes in commercial interiors.
“Concrete has substance, mass, permanence, warmth and is surprisingly tactile,” said Ruth Preucel, director of interiors for the firm. “It feels earthy and is at home in both traditional and modern settings.”
Concrete’s utility and durability, matched with its sculptural sensitivity and opportunities for customization, made it a material of choice when Preucel’s firm collaborated with Cheng Design on a design for a 10-foot-long precast custom-molded concrete vanity with an elliptical integral sink.
“Made entirely of natural materials from formless slurry, the hardened mixture of water, cement, sand and stone has been engineered such that it floats three-quarters of an inch from the back and side walls,” Preucel said. “The gap allows for a clean termination of wall-to-wall mirror in addition to providing an opening to permit water to escape to the floor.”
Cheng Design used powdered, blended pigments to produce rich color saturation of the concrete, she said.
“ create subtle inconsistencies and a mottled appearance, arriving at a more natural-looking surface similar to natural stone,” Preucel said. “The concrete vanity is set against one of the newest porcelain tile floor products available on the market. One of the most advanced double-press porcelain tile manufacturing techniques helps to create a crisply refined minimalist stone look, with through-body coloration and clean texture with shade variation, embodying variations in color inherent in nature.”
Elizabeth Spengler, owner of Dorado Designs in Tucson and Oro Valley, Ariz., said concrete is a popular material in the arid southwest because it fits the rustic and natural environment.
But Spengler’s firm sells products like Cheng’s more as a work of art rather than simply a countertop. She said many concrete countertops in Arizona are cast-in-place, and at this point, she believes products such as Cheng’s have a price point affordable only to higher-end clients. But she still likes it.
“It’s a wonderful material,” she said. “It comes out of the molds just like it’s put into the molds – you don’t have to do anything to it. It’s a very soft-looking, organic material, but he makes it really interesting with shapes and semiprecious stones. It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind thing for a client who wants to put in a broken shard from an old plate he liked or personalize it however he wants.”
The manufacturing methods of precast concrete countertops are well-suited for smaller precast operations, experts said.
Ware points out the method of precasting concrete countertops is versatile enough to accommodate everyone from the artisan to the run-of-the-mill precaster.
“It’s like music – nobody’s the best,” he said. “One might have his own style that makes him unique, but it’s definitely an art form, and with different artists, you’ve got different techniques and different looks.”
Cheng’s business is expanding among smaller contracting companies buying his mix to make ordinary concrete countertops.
Reynolds says a standard-sized vanity top with an inset bowl can be precast over and over, though specialized orders can be challenging and more expensive for the design work.
Training is key
“Precasters should be educated,” Andrews said. Numerous sites throughout the country provide training courses, such as The Concrete Countertop Institute in Raleigh, N.C.
While concrete can be used by any contractor to produce a countertop, the value – what gives it a certain level of luxury – is the artisanship that goes into the design. A good artisan can create a product that doesn’t even resemble concrete.
“Do-it-yourself people and professionals are seeing this as an area where you can provide some personalization, customization and creativity lacking in any other part of the home,” Cheng said.
Cheng gives a nod to stamped concrete but notes it’s a competitive market.
“With concrete countertops, I am trying to raise the standard to its highest so it doesn’t become a cheap commodity,” he said, adding that precast is now “far ahead” of cast-in-place.
Experts say precast offers many competitive values over cast-in-place.
“You have the ability to fine-tune it, put all the materials in it and get all the imperfections out. Precision manufacturing is more conducive to a shop environment,” Adams said.
Andrews echoes the same mantra. “The homeowner isn’t looking over your shoulder, and you’re not making a big mess in somebody’s house. If you have a problem, you can either start over or fix it in the shop. You have more flexibility.”
“Our clients would probably allow us to do a cast-in-place countertop, but we really promote the precast process because of the flexibility, shipping ease and the ability to install it quick and fast,” he said.
But precast concrete countertops are not an effortless endeavor.
“It is a material that gets its patina over time and needs to be waxed and cared for. If a client wants something to always be pristine and perfect, he is not the candidate for concrete countertops,” Spengler said.
Adams educates clients when specifying a concrete countertop as to how it will perform, and the fact that it will not have a perfect surface. “It’s not a material conducive to that, and there are a lot of clients who like that it’s not so perfect and not so precise,” he said.
Ultimately, Adams believes that precast concrete countertops hold promise as a developing niche for precast manufacturers.