Kitchen Islands

A kitchen island and its cousin, the peninsula, can vastly expand the design potential and convenience of just about any kitchen. Among the earliest islands were farm tables that gave cooks extra work surfaces and doubled as informal dining stations. Today, a homeowner has the option of islands made of the same materials as the base cabinets and countertop for an integral look. On the other hand, the latest trend is leaning back toward a freestanding look, with upper cabinets, base cabinets, and countertop materials in a mix of materials and colors.

In this scenario, any freestanding piece of furniture with at least one part standing at about counter height can function as an island. Most homeowners prefer a piece that offers hidden cabinets, open shelves, or a combination of the two in addition to another work surface. In a more high-tech kitchen, lower storage may also include a host of refinements such as wine racks and refrigerated drawers.

Kitchen islands can come in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate any kitchen.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Kitchen islands can come in a variety of shapes
and sizes to accommodate any kitchen.

In many kitchens, the island is used as an extra workstation, adding to the usefulness of the work triangle or corridor kitchen. In others, it's used as a low, casual divider defining the perimeter of the kitchen where it meets the family room or breakfast room. In either case, if you add in-floor wiring, plumbing, and gas lines, the possibilities for an island's usefulness are endless. Just about any appliance can be located in an island if the plumbing and electrical wiring are planned in. A wine rack, a gourmet wine chiller, an under-cabinet refrigerator, and an ice-maker on the family room side are very nice options.

On the kitchen side, add a second dishwasher, a microwave, or even an under-cabinet wall oven. In a small or medium-size kitchen, one of the most popular uses of an island is as a place to house the sink. The option of facing toward the family room is so attractive that a kitchen island sink has replaced the classic under-the-window sink in many homes. In a larger kitchen, the island may house a second sink. When combined with easy access to the microwave and the fridge, this setup creates a secondary work triangle.

Your needs and tastes will help determine what kind of island you should have. In a smaller space, you'll get maximum storage, convenience, and a neat appearance if you specify cabinets on both sides of the kitchen island so that dishes can be stashed or removed from either side. For a stylish, freestanding-furniture look that's especially at home in traditional settings, specify an island with table legs and a low shelf for open display and storage. The common kitchen principle of extending every countertop at least an inch beyond the cabinets to prevent dribbling spills down cabinet fronts especially applies to islands. Obviously, you'll need significantly more overhang for knee room (at least 15 inches) if your island is used as a snack table or as a higher snack counter with stools (18 inches).

One of the most dramatic, popular island designs is two-tiered, with food prep on the kitchen side and counter seating on the other. A sink can be stationed either on the same level as the eating counter or on a waist-high work counter with the dining surface on a higher plane. When the appliance you want to house in the island is a cooktop, however, safety dictates that the cooktop be on a lower plane, with the snack counter at least four to six inches higher. Specify heat-resistant material for the countertops adjoining the cooktop and at least 24 inches of counter for landing space on both sides, and provide for at least four inches of heat-resistant backsplash.

An island opposite the fridge is a logical place for the microwave. It's still within the work triangle, which makes sense because most of what goes in the microwave comes from the fridge. Alternatively, if your microwave gets more use by the kids as a snack-fixer, you may prefer to locate it outside the triangle but still near the fridge, in a combination work island/snack bar. Wall ovens are often located outside the work triangle since they're not used as much as a cooktop, and anything you bake or roast will stay in the oven for at least 15 minutes. An island may prove the most convenient landing spot for hot foods out of the oven.

In generously sized kitchens, it might be best to think along the lines of "if one island is good, two are better." A primary island may be stationed within the work triangle, housing extra storage, a mini-fridge or refrigerator drawers, a prep sink, a drop-in cooktop, and so on. Another island might serve solely as a snack bar, perhaps with a small TV perched at one end on a swivel base. If this island defines the perimeter of the kitchen, choose your island base, top, and counter stools to coordinate with the decorative scheme of the adjoining room. Whether this means elegant leather bar chairs, pretty wicker with plump cushions, or metal bistro stools with amusing cut-out motifs is up to you. Even in the kitchen, an island is for fun and adventure!

Kitchen Desks

There's been a real revolution in the definition of "homework" in the past decade, and today's kitchens have risen to the occasion beautifully. Millions of Americans telecommute from conventional jobs or work independently from home on a part-time or full-time basis. Although a dedicated home office is very popular, another option is to locate the office, or a least a workstation, within the kitchen, so that work can be performed in a common area.

Even if the home office is used simply for planning meals and ordering groceries online today, you never know what it might be used for in the future! It would probably be smart to install as sophisticated an electrical system as you can, since your family's needs will likely increase. After all, the kitchen has always been "command central" for the typical family. And, for the many children who have always preferred to do their homework at the kitchen table no matter how well outfitted their rooms, a computer in the kitchen makes it even easier.

A computer desk in the kitchen can take many forms, but don't just set the electronics onto a base cabinet counter and be done with it. If you spend any time at all at this workstation, you'll need an ergonomically sound chair, plenty of knee space, a keyboard tray that drops down to the correct height, and so on. You may want the workstation to face into the kitchen or into the family room so you can keep an eye on your crew; or you may prefer it tucked into a corner, facing the wall, for a greater sense of privacy. As long as you avoid the busy work triangle area, wherever you can fit in your computer station may work.

Power is what the computerized home is about, so make sure you have enough. You'll probably be adding electrical outlets every 36 inches or so along your backsplashes (or on power strips beneath the upper cabinets if switchplates will disturb your backsplash design), so while the electricity is being planned, plan for the desktop computer area. In addition to a computer and a phone, you may need electrical and phone outlets plus counterspace and lower-storage space for a printer, answering machine, fax machine, and any other "must-have" equipment. To conserve space, look for units that provide more than one of these functions. If this is where you'll stash the small TV, make plans for that, too. All this may mean extra new wiring, but most older homes need it to make the leap into the new electronic era.

What if you prefer the scenic byway to the electronic highway? Chances are, you'll still be more comfortable with some kind of a workstation, however informal, in the kitchen. Whether you choose a small writing table, a conventional desk to coordinate with the style of your kitchen, or a desk made of the same material as your kitchen is up to you. In a traditional, formal kitchen, you might enjoy an l8th-century "secretaire" that includes upper glassed cabinets and open shelves as well as lower drawers and a drop-down writing surface. In other cases, you'll want to plan upper storage cabinets with either glass or solid doors.

You'll need enough counterspace to hold a few desk necessities (pens, notepads, scissors, and so on); a few shallow, wide drawers to stash bills and clutter; and space for your recipe box and the cookbooks you use most. If the desk or counter is tucked into a corner near an adjacent wall or run of tall wood cabinets, you can hang a bulletin board and a good-size calendar.

The kitchen is not only a room that you use every single day, it also takes much more abuse that most of the other rooms in your house. As a result, every kitchen needs a little work eventually -- whether it's a simple face-lift or a complete overhaul. Hopefully now you know how to make the kitchen that is right for you.

©Publications International, Ltd.

About the contributor:

Mary Wynn Ryan is the author of numerous interior design books including The Ultimate Kitchen, The Ultimate Bath, Cottage Style, Fresh Country Style and Garden Style.  She has written about home furnishings and interior design for various magazines and served as Midwest editor of Design Times magazine. She was also the director of consumer and trade marketing for the Chicago Merchandise Mart's residential design center. She is president of Winning Ways Marketing, an editorial and marketing consulting firm that specializes in home design and decorating.