Since the 1980s when builders first began plopping blocks of wood in the middle of a floor the island has been one of the most popular models of kitchen design. Through the years the function and look continues to evolve from the early days of added storage space, to the next incarnation when appliances were added, to the addition of multiple levels to accommodate seating and visual interest. The latest trend is for the island to more closely resemble furniture so they look less like a part of the kitchen and more of a seamless blend with the adjoining room’s decor.
Despite their huge popularity, an island cannot and should not be a part of every kitchen, most designers agree. They work best in an L-shaped kitchen that is at least 12 to 14 feet wide. The barest minimum of walk space should be 36 inches, but the National Kitchen and Bath Association prefers at least 42 inches clearance for a one-cook kitchen and 48 for multiple cooks or high traffic kitchens. The most popular island width is roughly three feet.
Like all kitchen design it is best to determine the island’s function. They work well as secondary workspaces with prep sinks and can hold auxiliary appliances like wine coolers or warming trays. One pitfall in adding a prep sink is not allowing enough adjacent counter space to make it truly functional. Guidelines call for a minimum of 36 inches on at least one side of a secondary sink. If a cooktop is on an island, allow for a minimum of 12 inches on side of a cooking surface and 15 inches on the other.
To add a punch of color or create a focal point, consider using a different wood for the base or a different countertop. Also think about varying the height of the island to break up the wide expanse and create interest. A typical countertop height is 36 inches high but you can add a lip to make a breakfast bar of 42 inches or lower a portion to table height of 30 inches.
Islands work well in today’s open concept living spaces to keep people connected but there can be drawbacks, too. Dirty dishes are often in full view and there can be safety issues if people are sitting too near a cooktop. A buffer of at least nine inches should separate a cooktop or sink. Consider also rounding the edges of an island as sharp corners can be a hazard.