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

Jessica Nicastro, an interior designer from Los Angeles, said that everyone gathers around the island, no matter how big or small their home. Your kitchen island is the focal point of any party. It can also be used as a buffet, homework center, and a breakfast table. How can you make an island that fits your space? We asked architects and designers for their advice.ImageJessica Nicastro, an interior designer based in Los Angeles, frequently uses darker colors on the island than in the surrounding kitchen as a way “to ground the space,” she said.Credit…Madeline TolleFirst Things First: Do You Have Enough Space?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 recommends that there be at least 42 inches between the island’s lower cabinets and the wall. If your kitchen is small, this might not allow for enough space for a tiny island. In such cases, it might be better to not have an island or to consider a peninsula. She said, “If it’s too big, it looks like an envelope.” ImageAn island doesn’t have to have seating. This one, designed by the New York-based design studio Workstead, maximizes storage instead.Credit…Matthew WilliamsShould You Include Seating?Does every island need to have knee space for stools? Stefanie Brechbuehler is a partner at Workstead, a New York-based design firm. “It can be confusing to see a large island with lots and lots of seating bordering a large dining table with lots and lots of seating. It feels redundant to me. It’s also fun to be able to sit on an island while someone cooks. It might be better to have less seating in smaller kitchens and maximize storage space. Instead, the island features a sink and dishwasher on the one side, while deep storage drawers are accessible from the adjacent dining area. Image by Worrell Yeung. What goes on top? If you want to seat at the island, it is common to place a row counter-height stools facing the kitchen. There are many options. There are many options. Jejon Yeung, a partner in the New York-based firm, said that they like to activate the ends of islands so it can serve as a desk or work space. It can be as simple or complex as a counter that is above standard storage cabinets. The best island depends on the space available and the functions you wish to offload from other areas of the kitchen. Ms. Nicastro stated that it was a great way to open up the space and face out. 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.ImageA kitchen designed by Workstead has an island with an integrated pot rail.Credit…Matthew WilliamsSometimes 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 prefers to have island drawers for countertop appliances such as blenders and toasters. Ms. Brechbuehler often adds outlets to the top drawers so that they can be used as charging stations. Cabinetry companies often provide dividers to give each implement a designated place. “The interior is as important as the exterior.”ImageIn a Brooklyn apartment designed by Morris Adjmi Architects, a Henrybuilt island is elevated on legs and made from different materials than the rest of the kitchen to give it the look of a free-standing piece of furniture.Credit…Nicole FranzenExperiment With FinishesIt’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 means raising the island on legs to make them look more like credenzas. Brechbuehler likes the approach. Brechbuehler likes this approach. 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.”ImageWorkstead used a similar strategy to create an island that resembles a large table for a kitchen in Brooklyn.Credit…Matthew WilliamsIn 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. Ms. Nicastro, a California kitchen designer, painted all the cabinets pale gray and used a white marble counter against a wall to create a dark soapstone counter on her island. She kept the counters the exact same, but painted the wall cabinets white and the island dark grey. This was for another kitchen in Los Angeles. It also gives the island a sense purpose.” Subscribe to our weekly email updates about residential real estate news. Follow us on Twitter at @nytrealestate