Think “countertop.” What do you see? You probably envision a slab of polished rock sitting in the island of a kitchen. Or, maybe you think the same about a bar or perhaps a bathroom sink. For their immense utility and ubiquity and despite their role as the surfaces around which our lives orbit, we often fail to see the possibilities and creativity available to us through countertop design. Here in the Flathead Valley, there’s access to some of the most innovative designs and cutting-edge materials to expand your countertop concept. These professionals take that concept to integrate a sense of current style and classic design into your home.

The Capabilities of Concrete

Concrete can act as a surface for countertops, walls, floors, & furniture. It can combine to bring a contemporary look to a rustic home, or complement a full modern look.

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Johnny Neal of Whitefish’s Woven 3 Design has been working with architectural concrete since 2008. At the time, he worked in Phoenix, Arizona, but later moved to Montana in search of cooler temperatures and thriving design markets. After finding that no other companies maintained his standards of quality, he ventured out on his own to open Woven 3 Design. In just over two and a half years of business, he has since developed strong relationships with the area’s best interior designers and high-end builders as they seek to do more modern architectural and design work.

“The best thing about concrete is that it’s customizable,” says Neal. He notes that, as a hand-made product, it can be formed, shaped, designed, and implemented more accurately and creatively than traditional slab countertop materials. “In that way, it’s a great alternative to granite and quarried mainstream countertop products.”

Those unfamiliar with concrete may have trouble conceptualizing its place inside a home. Neal asserts that in addition to being one of the most durable materials one can use, concrete also has great potential as a warm, indoor surface. Neal uses mixed materials, color, sealer, and edge design to make concrete at home in our mountain environment.

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“One thing that we do that sets us apart from our competition is our focus on design aspects, which allows us to break the rules on what can be done with mixed materials,” says Neal. “We try to incorporate wood, steel, stone, and other materials that bring concrete to life.”

“The best thing about concrete is its custom-ability. it’s a great alternative to granite and quarried mainstream countertop products.”
–Johnny Neal, Woven 3 Design

The Woven 3 Design team can also add color to concrete, as well as a matte or satin sealer to integrate the material to the preexisting home design. “Using mixed materials takes the design elements that are already present and unifies the countertop with the overall aesthetic of the home.”

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Neal feels excited by projects like this sink design, where innovation meets design to create a one-of-a-kind, functional product.

Additionally, while maintenance used to be a main concern for concrete countertops, modern technology allows designers to create extremely thin (as fine as half of an inch), extremely durable concrete pieces. Because each project requires a unique mix, this hand-made process is initially more costly to clients than traditional countertops. However, the low-maintenance, durability, and contemporary aesthetic are well worth the craftsmanship.

As Neal continues to speak, the concrete design opportunities seem boundless. From a 30-foot-long seamless run, to innovative vertical edges, concrete is anything but stale and predictable.

“When possible, we try to give alternatives to the boring, flat slab,” he says. “To do that, we can implement edge profiles that are uncommon, like 30-degree profiles or radial shapes.” Neal emphasizes the elasticity of concrete, which allows it to be molded into whatever shape the client desires. One of his favorite recent projects was an infinity sink with a quarter-inch-wide inset cut into the concrete for the drain.

“That was a huge challenge, but it came out perfectly,” says Neal. Based on his work, that doesn’t seem to be an anomaly. As you redesign your countertop concept, concrete deserves to be one of your go-to contemporary materials.

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“Using mixed materials takes the design elements that are already present and unifies the countertop with the overall aesthetic of the home.”
–Johnny Neal, Woven 3 Design

Breaking Barriers

On 34 Wildcat Way, there is a 22,000-square-foot studio where 26 craftsmen, designers, and engineers are pushing the limits of innovation in Western architecture. Jeff Brandner and the rest of his team at Brandner Design are artists embodying the freedom of the American West by taking chances, creating opportunities, and working to make even the most mundane parts of a home works of art.

“Design is a process,” says Brandner, who emphasizes creativity and customization with his clients. “That’s what’s so exciting. We get to take something as simple as a countertop and make it extraordinary.”

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Brandner Design emphasizes a balance of extremes. They mix materials, mix themes, and mix traditions that accentuate and juxtapose each other in a way that is strikingly satisfying. For countertops, they mix steelwork with woodwork to create a warm, industrial feel at home in a progressive mountain landscape. And, no, “warm, industrial” is not an oxymoron.

“Our design aesthetic has always been an industrial, contemporary style that defies the stereotypical industrial look,” says Brandner. “That doesn’t have to be a raw, cold style. It can be clean and sophisticated if it’s done right.” When it comes to blending an industrial motif into Montana’s mountain landscape, Brandner Design does it right.

Countertops are one of the few surfaces that are made to be both seen and touched. When mixing materials for countertops, the key is to find the right blend to be both contemporary and warm. Modern, yet inviting. “There’s a common misconception that steel is cold and not a great material for a homeowner to touch, feel, and have close,” says Brandner. “We work warmth into our designs, using patinas to give the surfaces an earthy, appealing feel to them.”

While at first clients aren’t used to the idea of steel countertops, once they see what Brandner Designs can do with a hunk of steel with wood accents, it quickly becomes one of their favorite parts of their home. And, while clients’ tastes adapt to steel, the steel itself adapts to the clients.

The kind of patina finish Brandner and his team use to warm the texture of the steel is a living finish. After the patina’s original reaction with the steel changes the metal’s color, it tends to continue to react over time. That change is a large part of its appeal.

“It’s a finish, not a paint. It’s going to change and adapt to its environment,” says Brandner, who doesn’t see aging and wear as a drawback, but rather a benefit of steel countertops. “A living finish has an iridescence, depth, and hand-finished quality to it.” Steel may not be for everyone, but it is a surface that grows with its owner and can be easily refinished and repaired. It has found a place in the growing Bozeman and Big Sky architectural landscapes.

“Our design aesthetic has always been an industrial, contemporary style that defies the stereotypical industrial.”

–Jeff Brandner, Owner, Brandner Design

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Zinc countertops like this one bring in another element of variability. They fit nicely into today’s contemporary designs.

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Patinas react with metal and continue to do so over time. A PATINA’D steel table is at once ever-changing and forever in style.

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Steel is durable, modern, and endlessly customizable. It just takes the right team to make it yours.

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Copper sinks and countertops bring warm tones to metalwork, and are cornerstones to Brandner Design’s work.

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Mixing patina’d steel with warm woods opens up the possibilities for innovation in western home design.

The image of changing patina atop a blended steel and wood structure works as an apt metaphor for the work of Brandner and his team. Freed by the openness of the West, they are able to adapt and invent as their creativity demands, all the while bringing together the themes of industrial and mountain design.

“For me as an artist, the West presents a clean palette for interjecting design sensibilities. We want to retain Western quality to our work, and pay homage and respect to the landscape by bringing in other styles to complement it,” he says. “The West to me is a promise land for pushing limits, and it just keeps getting better.”

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“Design is a process. That’s what’s so exciting. We get to take something simple and make it extraordinary.”

–Jeff Brandner, Owner, Brandner Design