The kitchen has traditionally had three main design elements, the cabinets, work space and the appliances. The cabinets are used for storage, counters are used as preparation areas and the appliances for food preparation or various other handling like refrigeration, cooking, cutting, etc. Up until after World War II, in the United States all three were provided by stand alone pieces of furniture. In big English kitchens large work tables were magnets for families as well as useful counter space.
After World War II, when there was a boom of cookie cutter home construction in the U.S., kitchens acquired built in cabinets and counters. The kitchen became more utilitarian and was usually reserved for the woman of the home and used exclusively for cooking, while other parts of the home were designated for the actual eating and all other activities.
Modern kitchens have reverted to the older model of a more social, open and customized kitchen. Everyone ends up in the kitchen. It again seems to be the place to congregate – more often there is more than one cook and families use the space for hanging out.
One new design element that has crept into the kitchen as it (re)evolved is the kitchen island. The island seems to be bringing back the idea of the reliable work table, only now it is oh so adaptable.
If you’re building a new kitchen or remodeling an older kitchen and considering building a kitchen island, take a moment to figure out if that is indeed what your kitchen needs. Vastly useful and attractive, in can nonetheless be inappropriate for certain kitchens.
Your kitchen needs to be big enough for an island, usually at least 13 feet wide. The size of the actual island will also depend on the overall available space. You need to make sure that there is enough room to walk between the island and cabinetry as well as open all doors (cabinets, dishwasher, compost bin, etc.). Also, if you are planning to have barstools or chairs at the island, make sure there is enough room with them there.
Islands work best with L, U and G shaped kitchens. These shapes make for relatively enclosed kitchens and the island can help to encourage more interaction in the space without making the flow awkward.
Next, think about what you will use the island for. The island is accessible from all sides and depending on size can have many applications. For example, kids can use it as a table to do homework on while dinner is being cooked. Or, the stove top can be on the island and helpers can use it to chop and stir. If there are multiple cooks, a free standing structure like the island is convenient and will give you more space to move around and cook without getting into each others’ way. Perhaps you will use it to set up buffets that people can access while you continue to cook using the other counter space. A properly set up island can also function as an informal dining or breakfast area that is more akin to an actual table and more social than an alienating, single line countertop seating arrangement.
Depending on your needs, you can choose to put a sink or a stovetop on the island. Or you can leave it as pure counter space. It can be multi-level and custom shaped or rectangular and level. Further, you can use the block as extra storage by adding drawers and doors.
The island adds a lot of functional advantages to the kitchen, but it can also help to structure the use of the space. It works as an area where people congregate, but it also works as a border, keeping them separate from the cooks or those cleaning. By bringing people into the kitchen but keeping them separated, the kitchen island encourages a social atmosphere without letting extra people get in the way of the activity. Or if they’re helping, it gives them a separate space to work.
Finally, the island becomes a focal point in the kitchen not only functionally but also aesthetically. It is, in many ways, a large piece of immovable furniture. By placing it in the middle of the room, you are putting it in the spotlight. You can make it stand out more by using different countertop materials from the rest of the kitchen or try to blend it in by making everything match perfectly. There are many decorative elements that can be applied to the kitchen island, ranging from colors and intricate, decorative mouldings to island shapes and arrangements.
The kitchen island is a great addition if your kitchen can accommodate it. Check if you need one (or do you already have enough storage and counter space and a table for your kids to hang out at?) and can fit it. Designing it is the fun part.