Step into almost any home built or remodeled in the past two decades and you’ll notice one common theme: The kitchen is much more than just a workspace, and it probably has a center island. “It’s been a gradual shift,” says designer Jose Cardenas of Hota Design, in Jacksonville, Florida. “Over the years, we’ve seen our clients start to use the kitchen as a social environment as much as they use it for actual cooking.” Accordingly, form has followed function. In place of the small, closed-off food-preparation zones of the past, today’s kitchens are open to other rooms, and sometimes even to the outdoors. They’re project spaces, entertaining centers, dining rooms, and much more. And many of those roles pivot on the modern-day equivalent of the round table: the kitchen island.
“An island can be a great, central hub for all sorts of family activities,” say designers Melandro Quilatan and Tania Richardson of Tomas Pearce Interior Design Consulting in Toronto. But, while islands certainly are a practical and attractive addition to many kitchens, they’ve become so de rigueur that some designers and contractors will shoehorn them into a too-small space, says Cardenas. Another common mistake, says designer Sandy Varelmann of Weave Ideas in Cleveland, Ohio, is topping the island with a trendy, but high-maintenance material. You can avoid these pitfalls, and others, by keeping the basics in mind.
Form and function
If you think you want an island in your new kitchen, begin by asking yourself the same kinds of questions designers ask their clients. “We always ask how many people cook in the space, what kinds of foods they cook, whether they entertain, if they want guests to be able to see what they’re doing,” says Cardenas. In addition to these questions, says designer Tineke Triggs of Artistic
Designs for Living in San Francisco, Calif., think about the non-cooking activities that will take place in the kitchen, like dining, or even work. “You may want to incorporate a dining bar, or make one end of the island a dining table,” she says. “And if you plan to spread out homework or papers, you should allow for plenty of flat, open space.” Bottom line: When it comes to choosing the countertop material, if you have a hard-working kitchen, make sure you select a surface that can stand up to what you dish out.
Once you have a sense of your needs, consider the shape and design of the island. A dual-height island can shield the kitchen mess from an open living space, and an angled or curved shape may maximize the seating area, but, say the designers we polled, a simple, rectangular scheme is often the best bet. “A double-height island has its place,” says Varelmann. “But many designers are moving away from that in favor of a wide, open surface area. The look is cleaner, and the surface is more versatile.”
Perhaps even more important than shape is size, and this is one decision many homeowners get wrong. “A sense of scale is important for the overall look,” says Cardenas. “But, also, not every kitchen has enough room for an island, and if you squeeze it in you may not leave enough space for circulation, or for cabinet or appliance doors to open properly.” A general rule of thumb is to allow for 42”-wide aisles between the edges of the island and any adjacent counter or appliance. To get a sense of how big the island will look in the space, Triggs suggests moving a table to the spot where the island will stand, then putting a large piece of cardboard or plywood in the dimensions of the island on top of the table. “It’s hard to imagine a space when you’re just looking at two-dimensional drawings,” she says. “Creating a ‘dummy’ island before you commit to adding one for real can help you figure out the perfect size.”
Not just a crucial prep and serving space, an island tends to be the focal point of a kitchen’s design, so the materials you choose for it must be both durable and beautiful. Designers warn away from picking high-maintenance surfacing like limestone, marble, or stainless steel. “Cambria is natural and so much more durable than other stones. Plus its look and movement is just breathtaking,” says Cardenas. “If you really want something like stainless steel,” suggests Varelmann, “incorporate it someplace it won’t get a lot of abuse, like on drawer fronts.”
To help focus attention on the island, designers often choose to mix designs and materials, using contrasting colors on perimeter counters and the island top, for example, or combining materials on the island itself, like pairing the classic stones from Cambria’s Waterstone Collection with butcher block, for a warm, old-world look. The thickness of the countertop material—and the edge treatment you choose—has a big impact on the effect you create, as well: For a sleek, European look go with a thinner countertop; choose an ornate edge treatment to coordinate with an antique-inspired space.
And, don’t forget the base of the island, another opportunity to make a bold statement. A painted finish can add exciting color, says Triggs. And, “we’re seeing more interesting woods with more pattern and grain,” says Varelmann. “Exotic woods like zebra wood are one option, and butternut is beautiful and underutilized.” A newer, more contemporary approach: Wrapping the entire island in one surfacing material
Accessories and storage
An island can take up a fair amount of kitchen real estate, so it’s important to make the most of every square inch. To that end, designers are incorporating cooktops, as well as bar and prep sinks into the surface, and building storage and appliances into the base. “I love to incorporate a removable cutting board,” says Triggs. “You can rout Cambria to create a depression for the cutting board. I also like to use microwave drawers in an island—it’s a great location for the microwave, and safer because you don’t have to lift heavy dishes down from above your head.”
Cardenas sees a trend toward integrated design: “Our clients really want luxuries and conveniences like wine coolers and trash compactors in the island—but they don’t always want to see them,” he says. “So we’ll integrate them with the millwork, facing them to match the surrounding island cabinetry.” Quilatan and Richardson make it a point to add storage wherever they can. “We’ll even put a shallow drawer at the bottom of the island, in the kick-plate area,” they say.