Is a Kitchen Island Essential? No, but You Know You Want One.


As the kitchen evolved from a work space hidden from guests to the place where everyone wants to congregate, the kitchen island became a must-have for many homeowners.

It’s easy to understand why: An island doesn’t just provide an extra work surface and add space for storage and appliances — it creates an area where family and friends can pull up a seat.

“No matter how large your home is, everyone tends to gather around the kitchen island,” said Jessica Nicastro, an interior designer based in Los Angeles. “Any party that you have, your kitchen island is the central meeting point. It also acts as a buffet, a homework center for children and a breakfast table.”

Since islands are usually custom elements designed to fit the layout of a specific kitchen, they can vary from one home to another in terms of size, shape and function. So how do you create an island that works for your space? We asked architects and designers for their advice.

Squeezing an island into a kitchen that is too small to accommodate it, just because you want one, is likely to leave you disappointed.

“With an island, your kitchen has to function when you have more than one person in it,” Ms. Nicastro said, noting that there needs to be enough space between the island and the cabinets around the perimeter of the room to comfortably hold several people — not to mention dishwasher and oven doors — without blocking circulation. She always tries to leave at least 42 inches between the island and the lower cabinets against the wall.

If your kitchen is small, that might leave only enough space for a diminutive island, she said. In that case, it’s often better not to have an island, or to consider another option, like a peninsula. “If it’s too small, it looks like a postage stamp,” she said. “To me, having a small island is like wearing pants that aren’t long enough.”

Does every island need to have knee space for stools? “The answer is a strong No,” said Stefanie Brechbuehler, a partner at the New York-based design studio Workstead. “Oftentimes, I find it very confusing when you see a big island with lots of seating bordering a huge dining table with lots of seating. To me, it feels superfluous. But at the same time, I know it’s fun to sit at an island while someone’s cooking.”

To decide what works best for you, she said, consider how much seating you really need (especially if there’s a dining table directly beside the island), as well as how much space you require for kitchen essentials. In smaller kitchens, it might be better to forgo room for stools and maximize storage space.

At Ms. Brechbuehler’s former home in Gallatin, N.Y., she and her husband and business partner, Robert Highsmith, designed an island without seating. Instead, the island has a sink and dishwasher on one side; on the other side are deep storage drawers accessible from an adjacent dining area.

If you do want seating at the island, the most common way is to line up a row of counter-height stools along the front of the island, facing into the kitchen. But there are many options. Sometimes, designers cantilever a length of countertop off one side of the island as a dedicated place for stools, which can be especially helpful for shallow islands.

In one Manhattan loft that the architects at Worrell Yeung designed, a cantilevered section on the side of an island has room for two stools, with plenty of space elsewhere for storage. “We like activating the ends of islands, where it can function more like a desk or a work space,” said Jejon Yeung, a partner at the New York-based firm.

For another Manhattan loft, the architects designed an island resembling an enormous block of Ceppo di Gré marble, with two voids — one on the front and one on the side — that offer places to sit.

“We were being a little playful with how we sculpted those niches and allocated spaces to pull up a stool,” Mr. Yeung said. The arrangement allows people at the island to engage with one another and different parts of the apartment, or to focus on independent activities.

Another option is to raise the height of the island where people will sit.

In a kitchen at a home near Lake Tahoe, designed by the architecture firm Ike Kligerman Barkley and the interior design firm the Wiseman Group, two countertops slightly overlap: A white Neolith work surface, where the island faces the range, is about 36 inches off the floor (typical counter height); a soapstone table surface, where the island faces a fireplace, is about 42 inches off the floor (typical bar height).

“We really wanted it to feel like a nice, big table, rather than an island,” said Carl Baker, a principal at Ike Kligerman Barkley.

The raised soapstone counter conceals messy dishes on the lower countertop when the kitchen is in use, he said, and it also keeps computers and paper goods clear of splatters: “You can put your laptop on it, play a game or make a puzzle, and it keeps it separate from all the cooking, cleaning and liquids.”

An island can be as simple as a length of counter above ordinary storage cabinets, or as complex as a bank of integrated kitchen appliances. Deciding what’s best depends on how much space you have and which functions you want to offload from other parts of the kitchen.

Designers often put the kitchen sink and faucet in the island (or in larger kitchens, use the island to introduce a second sink). “It’s a nice way to face out and open up the room a little bit,” Ms. Nicastro said. When she designs an island with a sink, she always includes a dishwasher and pullout trash bin, positioned on either side of the sink, to create a complete station for cleaning up after meals.

If you want to show off your cooking skills, consider installing a range or cooktop in the island instead.

Sometimes designers also use an island to conceal small appliances, like microwaves and wine refrigerators, by tucking them into the kitchen-facing side.

Finally, don’t forget to customize the insides of cabinets and doors to maximize functionality. Ms. Nicastro likes to make space in island drawers for countertop appliances like toasters and blenders. Ms. Brechbuehler sometimes adds outlets inside the top drawers, so they can function as charging stations. And cabinetry companies frequently provide dividers that give every implement a dedicated place.

“We’re focused on making sure that every inch of the kitchen is functionally optimized and feels really good to use,” said Scott Hudson, the founder and chief executive of the cabinetry company Henrybuilt, which personalizes the insides of drawers to keep cutlery, spice jars and spatulas organized. “The interior is as important as the exterior.”

It’s possible to build an island using the same base cabinets and counters installed in the rest of the kitchen, but the current trend is to break away from that sense of sameness and give the island a distinct material treatment.

“We think of the island more and more as something that can be treated like a piece of furniture, and that could be separate from the rest of the room,” Mr. Hudson said.

That may mean choosing different cabinetry finishes and countertop materials to distinguish the island from the surrounding kitchen, he said. Sometimes it also means raising the island on legs to make it look more like a credenza.

Ms. Brechbuehler likes this approach. “You can think of an island like an object,” she said, treating it as a stand-alone piece. Simply repeating the same materials used throughout the kitchen “is kind of like when you buy a bedroom suite and everything matches — it can sometimes feel like a lost opportunity.”

In one Brooklyn kitchen that Workstead designed, most of the cabinets and counters are wood, but the island has a dark-blue base and a white marble top to make it stand out.

But even changing just one material is often enough. In a kitchen that Ms. Nicastro designed in El Segundo, Calif., she painted all the cabinetry pale gray, then used a white marble counter against the wall and a dark soapstone counter on the island. For another kitchen in Los Angeles, she kept the counters the same but painted the wall cabinets white and the island dark gray.

Adding a saturated color at the center of the kitchen “is just a nice way to ground the space,” she said. “It also gives the island a sense of purpose.”

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