By Monica Hesse, Published: February 6 in the Washington Post
In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth, including a form of igneous rock called granite, a mass composed mostly of silica and aluminum that makes up a large part of the continental crust, and comes in all the colors of the rainbow and signifies majesty and serenity. On the kajillionth day, or thereabouts, we mined that granite and we made countertops.
We laid those countertops in kitchens all across the land, in condos and co-ops, in Pittsburgh and Portland. Now that the entire United States has been good and covered, from slab to shining slab, we can take a step back and analyze the age of the granite countertop. Think about what it’s all meant.
It’s meant that we wanted something easy to clean.
What else does it mean?
The Kellys, Paul and Joyce, bought the house 30 years ago, from the ex-wife of the guy who built it. He’d designed it in the spirit of a California rambler, then run off to actual California, leaving his ex to live in his dream. The place was a disaster back then — oh, you should have seen it — powder-blue carpet, white grand piano. And the kitchen? Walls, blocking the dining room, blocking the view down to the river. Formica abounded, or maybe it was another kind of laminate. Paul redid those countertops in the 1990s. He used tile, which was popular then. The Kellys lived with the tile for 20 years, but it was the kind of countertop that you could scrub and scrub and never get to sparkle.
“It was starting to rot, and the grout was all yicky,” explains Joyce.
Some women in her book club were getting new kitchens. Several of them on this Silver Spring block — bip bip bip, all in a row, new countertops. It became a thing as they all decided they wanted to age in place, but not if their places had disgusting kitchens. Joyce looked at her friends’ ambitious kitchen plans, and decided it was time. In October, the Kellys went to a granite dealer. They ordered granite countertops.
“This was the most expensive granite they had,” says Joyce, explaining that they splurged on materials and saved by doing the installation themselves. “It has totally fabulous flow.”
“Joyce walked in and immediately bonded with the granite,” says Paul, a retired mathematician.
“It’s very hip. It has green and rust,” Joyce says, which brings out the cherry in the cabinets. It has a name: Crema Bordeaux. Anywhere in the world, granite of this color is called Crema Bordeaux, just like anywhere in the world, an Ikea Poang chair is an Ikea Poang chair. “Just look at it.”
It looks — it looks like granite. It looks like lovely granite, but granite is in the eye of the beholder, and the unique characteristics of one’s own granite are not immediately apparent to a newcomer. One’s own granite sings a special siren song. All around the country, couples leave parties and get in their cars and say to each other, “I’m so glad we went with the Santa Cecilia instead of the Kashmir Gold.”
Joyce pauses. She looks concerned.
“I would be more comfortable,” she says, “if we were talking about something that was important.” Something that mattered. She is not a frivolous person. She knows the difference between what matters and what doesn’t.
The granite countertop is easier to maintain. It makes the kitchen more pleasant. It makes the Kellys want to spend time there. It is even — she’ll go so far as to say this — inspirational. She’ll say all of this, but she wants to make sure one thing is clear.
It’s just, she says, a countertop.
They’ve gotta have it
Laminate was a countertop. Wood was a countertop. Granite is . . . what? A pursuit. An ambition. A glossy, reflective surface that allows us to gaze at ourselves and know where we stand (we stand in front of the computer watching videos on eHow.com about how to clean countertops).
Granite is . . .
“What’s interesting is how granite has quickly become the one and only material, across the country and across all price points,” says Ron Cathell, a real estate agent in Northern Virginia. It used to be a high-end thing, back in the 1990s when these countertops began making appearances. It was aspirational. “Then, 12 years ago, the first sort of moderately priced homes started using it. Now, every home has to have granite if you want to sell it. Not just sell it, but rent it. It’s become such a thing. It’s almost — ” he searches for the right metaphor. “It’s almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet.”
As the price has gone down, the popularity has gone up; just look at the graph provided by StoneUpdate.com, a Web site dedicated to the natural stone industry. In 2000, 895,000 metric tons of granite slabs were imported to the United States. In 2011, that number was 1.43 million — and that’s down from a high of 2.64 million a few years ago. The recession slowed granite sales — even cheap granite, which can be bought for as low as about $30 a square foot. Less cheap can go for $80, or however much you’re willing to spend, really. The backsplash is the limit.
“Let’s get deep, let’s get psychological,” says Anthony Carino. Carino is the co-host of “Kitchen Cousins,” a renovation show on HGTV, the network that taught the world about recessed lighting and radiant heating, that democratized the stainless steel appliance so it could be enjoyed by New Yorkers and North Dakotans alike. HGTV is the land that viewers visit when they are trying to cultivate a personal design aesthetic by spying on what everyone else is doing. “People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking about,” Carino says. “It’s like listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars.”
The guys don’t know anything about hot-rod cars.
A couple walks into a house, in any city, on any HGTV show.
This house has four bedrooms and three bathrooms, the real estate agent tells them. It has a fenced-in back yard, lots of light, a good school district, a new furnace. It comes with a unicorn. This house — she thinks they’re ready to hear this news — this house will make them lose 15 pounds from their thighs.
Does it have granite countertops? the husband asks.
Your one and only stone
Let’s get deeper. Let’s get more psychological.
Let’s go to Counter Intelligence, a Maryland granite dealer whose 186 employees organize about 40 countertop installations a day. (They’re not solely a granite enterprise. They do other stones, too). They pride themselves on quick turnaround: two days from order to installation. They strive for low price points — a basic order could cost about $3,000. A man could buy his wife nice jewelry for $3,000. Counter Intelligence wants to persuade this man to buy a countertop instead.
Richard Trimber is the president and chief operating officer of Counter Intelligence (which sold Paul and Joyce Kelly their granite). He’s a ruddy, healthy-looking guy. He used to be a lawyer in Washington before he got out of that business and into the countertop business. Trimber has spent a lot of time thinking about countertops. He knows, for example, that his average countertop installation in Washington is usually between 40 to 43 square feet, depending on how old the house is. He has read “Freakonomics.” He has read “The Culture Code.” Richard Trimber knows that when people buy countertops, they are not really buying countertops.
“Our product is purely emotional,” he says, back in his office at his desk, which is made of granite. “Nobody needs a new countertop.” What the granite does, he says, is make a statement about who you are and where you are in life.
It says: I am not living in a group house in Mount Pleasant anymore. It says: I am not holing up in my parents’ basement. It says: I will throw parties in my open-floor-plan great room, refilling the hummus for the kitchen island while chatting with my guests. I will buy the hummus from Trader Joe’s.
Another thing. “Your stone,” Trimber says, “is the only stone in existence.”
Granite is not like laminate, mass-produced and symmetrical. There is only one of every slab, fulfilling owners’ desire for uniqueness. Granite is nature. Nature in your kitchen.
But backtracking a bit. The laminate countertops? They said something, too, when they first became popular. They said: I am in control. They — and the closed, walled-off kitchens they were installed in — said: When I make dip, I don’t want my guests to see it. I want some privacy. They said: A kitchen should be for the cook. It’s nothing to tweet about, nothing to over-share.
Someday, one speculates, we may return to that mentality. Some day, HGTV buyers will go into a house and say, “I don’t like this open floor plan. Can we close it up? Can we have non-steel appliances? What’s the deal with this raised sink? Ewww, the countertops.”
Looking at the granite kitchen of today is like looking at a museum exhibit of the future, something the Smithsonian will curate.
“Countertop: How where we put our food shows us who we are.”
Seizing the dream
Is that time now? Is the end of an era approaching?
“Granite has taken on the Kleenex brand,” says Carino, the HGTV host. “Now everything’s Kleenex. Most people don’t realize that they don’t actually want a granite countertop.” They might want soapstone. They might want Silestone. What they’re really looking for, Carino says, is “granite-esque.”
The forward-leaning design snobs — the readers of “Dwell” and “Architectural Digest” — have already moved on. They want poured concrete in swirling designs. Carino is trying to turn people on to quartz, which is even harder than granite, even less porous.
Recently, the Dulles Expo and Conference Center held a home and renovation expo. Customers streamed in from around the greater Washington area. In the back, every hour on the hour, a woman wrapped in what looked like papier-mache came out and became the “Living Fountain” display, with water shooting out of her fingertips.
Around this spectacle, people mingled. A young couple, holding hands, bought cinnamon almonds and looked at starter granite. An older couple bickered about whether they were buying countertops or looking at hot tubs. The woman wanted the counter. The woman won.
“What do you call this?” The man asked, running his hands over a granite tile at a dealer’s booth. “Carpe diem, huh?”
Seize it. Seize the countertop.
Bring it home and install it. Styles may fade, but it would take eons and eons for the granite to crumble, returning to the elements from whence it came. Have something permanent. Something dependable. A big, weighty slab of the American dream.
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