[NOTE: This post has been updated.]
Whether it’s traditional or modern, just about every new home these days is outfitted with a kitchen island. “The kitchen is the primary center of social life, and the island is a critical part of it,” says Brookfield, Connecticut-based designer Mary Jo Peterson, who specializes in kitchens and baths and has seen a seismic shift in home design. “Instead of giving me a house plan with a blank where the kitchen is, now production builders and architects will say to me, ‘You plan the kitchen, and I’ll design the house around it.’”
The popularity of the “great room,” where kitchen, dining and living room are merged into one large space, has elevated the kitchen island into much more than just an additional countertop. Here, the island serves as a divider that marks the kitchen threshold. Indeed, a large kitchen might have two islands—one for prep work and another that defines a social gathering area. Some designers use different finishes for the island countertop and cabinetry than in the rest of the kitchen to help visually distinguish it as the transition point between the functional realm and the social realm.
So Many Possibilities
The kitchen island often replaces the breakfast nook, and in some cases it even becomes an informal dining table for a modern twist on the traditional eat-in kitchen. In that case, making sure that the island can accommodate all the necessary seating becomes a priority; there are various configurations for seating to consider. “If the island is designed to be the breakfast nook or the main place where you eat, then create some seating where you can look at each other, instead of just lined up in a row,” suggests Peterson.
Contemporary kitchen islands frequently include the cooktop and/or prep sink. The “cooking show” setup puts the spotlight on food preparation and makes it more of a social activity. With a second sink and work area, there can be another person preparing a meal in parallel. While a large central hood can create a sense of drama to the kitchen, you can also install a downdraft cooktop (although serious chefs will want the power of a hood). For her own kitchen in San Francisco, architect Sarah Willmer designed an island (shown here) with an industrial elegance.
[photo by Sharon Risedorph] The island is supported by stainless steel legs, giving it a lighter appearance. A Wolf range is enclosed in a simple painted sheetrock box and flanked by butcher-block counters, and complemented by a stainless steel bar. “My husband holds court from the stove,” says Willmer.
For the ultimate in contemporary minimalism, the high-end kitchen manufacturer Bulthaup offers the
“monoblock” in its B3 line, which is an island that integrates everything into a sleek cube that looks like a sculpture in a contemporary art museum.
Beware the Island that Ate the Kitchen
The downside of the rise of the kitchen island is that it can become disproportionately large and overwhelm the space. “They’ve become bigger and bigger, until you’ve got the SUV of islands sitting in the middle of the kitchen,” says San Francisco-based architect Neal Schwartz. “Then it’s undoing all the things that it was supposed to do—you don’t want the island to separate people.” Peterson describes these ultra-large islands as akin to “landing pads for jets.” Perhaps because they represent a glamorous life of casual entertaining and parties, one of the marks of luxury for a home is to have an enormous marble-topped kitchen island.
A Flexible Approach
To counteract the impulse that bigger is better, consider reducing the number of functions that the island serves. For his own kitchen in Sonoma, Schwartz created a simple 4-by-3-foot island that provides useful countertop space and acts as a “docking station” for a small dining table. When it’s just his immediate family, the setup serves as their breakfast table.
[Photo by Matthew Millman] For dinner parties, the table slides over and connects with another table to make a much longer dining table. Schwartz also occasionally recommends that his clients consider a kitchen cart or butcher block table on wheels, which provides extra prep space while giving them flexibility. “These portable islands doesn’t feel so huge and imposing,” says Schwartz.
Another way to reduce the sense of a massive island is to create counters of differing heights. For example, the “work” side of the island would be at a standard counter height of 36 inches, while the “social” side of the island could be at the bar height of 42 inches. “The advantage to bumping up the height is that you block the view of the mess in the kitchen—dirty dishes in the sink, the mess in your prep area,” says Peterson. Alternatively, a seating area that at the lower 30-inch table height is better for accommodating small children and older people. Some kitchen islands even have built-in banquettes in the back for casual seating.
Whether the island is big or small, Peterson emphasizes the importance of providing enough room to accommodate everyone. “Look hard at how much clearance there is around the back of the island, because people will gather there,” she says. “Be prepared for the crowds—don’t shortchange the kitchen on social space.”
Indeed, the design possibilities are infinite! Browse Houseplans.com's floor plan collections for inspiration. For example, Plan 51-581
includes an island with a raised central section to hide kitchen clutter, and is surrounded by a wide skirting
for casual meals and food prep. In Plan 928-13,
the island is half table and half cooking center -- the island dresses up
or down depending on the activity it hosts. In Plan 481-5
the island takes an angular C shape, with an upper buffet tier to hide clutter while
at the same time defining the entire kitchen within the larger space of the great room.
To browse a collection of plans with cool kitchen islands, click here.