Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Kitchen Islands: The Life of the Party
New trends in kitchen islands offer versatility in function and design, as well as an aesthetic boost.
September 21, 2022
You may remember when the kitchen’s status symbol was a hulking appliance like a six-burner range or a smaller but still chichi wine refrigerator. These statement pieces enhanced a kitchen and set it apart from others.
Nowadays, though, islands are taking the place as the kitchen must-have. Buyers might not consider it a deal killer if a kitchen has no island, but the house may not get the same attention, says salesperson Barb St. Amant with Atlanta Fine Homes, Sotheby’s International.
“It’s the number one design feature our clients ask for in a kitchen,” says John Potter, architect and partner at Morgante Wilson Architects in Chicago.
They might be trending now, but islands are hardly new. The difference today is that islands have evolved into an aesthetic touch and a space for gathering, rather than an area dedicated solely to kitchen tasks like chopping and prepping. “Kitchen islands can be gathering spots for the family for breakfast or the cocktail hangout spot when entertaining,” says Rozit Arditi, principal of New York City–based Arditi Design. “It’s also the main conversation area where everyone gathers while cooking,” she says.
Add to that a homework center, a space for gift wrapping, and a dinner spot as families become more casual, Potter says.
Such versatility means islands are now larger, which is in step with kitchens themselves getting bigger. Many kitchens today function as part of an open-plan layout and a bridge between the workspace and entertainment areas, says designer John Hall of JH Design International in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Sleek is in, which means many kitchens now lack upper cabinets. Still, a longer and wider kitchen island makes up the storage difference, says designer Jodi Swartz of KitchenVisions in Boston.
Bigger islands can also fit more seating. Although the pandemic didn’t initiate any changes in the island, it’s thought to have increased how often people congregate around it, says kitchen designer Mick De Giulio of de Giulio Kitchen Design in Chicago.
More than just the workhorse of the past, the kitchen island offers homeowners all kinds of new options, styles and uses, so long as it is designed functionally. Here are some considerations.
The size should be based partly on the room’s dimensions so that the island is proportional to the space. How it’s used should also influence its size. Visually, there should be enough open space in the room, too. “Open space and flow are more important than having one more cabinet for storage,” says designer JT Norman of Kitchen Magic in Nazareth, Penn.
Suppose the kitchen space isn’t large enough. In that case, an alternative may be a peninsula, once popular and still a viable option, says designer Fabrice Garson of Bilotta Kitchen & Home in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Where an island can fit in the room will also affect its size, says De Giulio. It shouldn’t be in the way of traffic to other rooms or other parts of the kitchen.
“If you have to walk around an island to get from a sink to a refrigerator each time, that doesn’t make sense,” De Giulio says. “I still believe in the principles of the work triangle,” he says, a concept formulated by the National Kitchen and Bath Association.
The amount of aisle space between the island and perimeter countertops and cabinetry is important, too. De Giulio advises 48 inches—enough space so that, with a dishwasher’s door open all the way, two people can pass easily.
When designers at Bilotta Kitchen & Home first meet with a client, they ask about the homeowner’s lifestyle and preferences and design around the answers, Garson says. Some islands may include more than one level to separate functions such as mixing drinks at a bar sink on an upper level or comfortably rolling out a pastry on a lower level. Appliances like a dishwasher or beverage cooler are also popular island options, says Michael Cox, principal with Foley & Cox in New York City.
Superlarge kitchens are increasingly designed with two smaller islands, rather than one enormous unit that is unwieldy to get around. Another selling point for two islands is that functions can be divided between them.
For example, De Giulio has designed one island for working and congregating and the other for setting out a buffet and serving, he says. Garson has designed one island for sitting and gathering, homework, and eating and a second with a sink and appliances—“a real workstation,” he says.
For comfortable seating, De Giulio prefers a standard 36-inch counter height rather than higher 42-inch bar height. “Many children find it hard to sit on a stool at that height,” he says. Norman advises leaving 24 inches between stools for elbow room.
One option that Hall is incorporating in some islands is to have a second seating area. A table can extend from the island at a lower 30-inch height for a comfortable option.
For storage, De Giulio favors drawers. Heights within should vary to fit what’s stored. Deep drawers work for a large pot or blender, while shallow ones work for towels and silverware. Arditi suggests adding shelves to cabinets for cookbooks and staggered storage.
Swartz’s first rule of thumb is that homeowners understand that no material is 100% indestructible. That means they should not take anything hot off a range or from an oven and place it directly on any surface, including the island.
What’s popular now are manmade surfaces that look good and can be used with less worry, Garson says. Cox favors stress-free surfaces like absolute black granite and pure white Caesarstone. Some homeowners like to integrate a butcher block or live-edge, Garson says, while others may favor a marble space.
Multiple types of edges can complete the countertop. De Giulio thinks square edges look crisp and clean in a modern kitchen while an ogee or furniture edge appears more traditional. Other popular styles include eased, pencil, and bullnose.
Permanent or Removable
Some designers and homeowners prefer a table or other piece of furniture for a less utilitarian look. A movable trolley, for instance, can be wheeled about the room. “It makes the space flexible and accommodating,” Swartz says.
The downside of a table is that the island aspect becomes less practical, since it usually won’t have storage or be at the best height for multiple tasks. The problem with a mobile design is that islands tend to get heavy with stuff piled atop them, and then aren’t easy to move, De Giulio says.
The familiar style of three pendant lights above an island has become almost a cliché. De Giulio now favors more linear, longer fixtures in metal or metal and wood that match the scale of the island. “They appear to float above the space,” he says. Cox likes to balance quality task lighting with a “killer decorative fixture for a central focal point,” he says.
BONUS: Mix and Match?
White kitchens still rank number one in popularity, according to surveys from online design and remodeling source Houzz. However, introducing another color or material differentiates an island and adds punch.
Garson finds that more than half of his clients now want a different material or color for the island than what they use around the perimeter.
Sandya Dandamudi, president of Chicago-based GI Stone, a supplier, fabricator and installer of custom stone, sees the mix-and-match look exploding. “Several of our clients select quartz counters for the perimeter, which includes around the sink and cooktop, and opt for an exotic natural stone for the island and backsplashes. This is a great way to combine practical needs and aesthetic tastes,” she says.
Will this multicolor look remain in vogue? “Short of white or cream, what isn’t trendy?” Swartz asks. “Cabinets are fashion. Some elements go out of style every 10 to 15 years. People should choose wisely and best match the feel of their home’s architecture,” she says.
De Giulio advises that homeowners base color choices on what looks best to their eye. “It depends on a room’s whole artistry,” he says.