Kitchen Islands –Atolls or Small Continents

I find that I often gravitate toward creating islands in kitchens where there once was a peninsula or nothing at all (open seas so to speak).  Interesting that the concept designing a kitchen “landscape” has taken on a topographical jargon.



Perhaps my preference for islands in kitchen layouts has come from living with kitchens that, regardless of size, had features that made negotiating around them less than functional.  I’m thinking of a fairly large (custom designed not by me) kitchen I once lived with that had a peninsula with a bank of upper cabinets over it with bottoms that hit just at eye level.  Not only was it difficult to carry on a conversation with someone on the other side, but it was a bitch to serve around.  Often sliding dishes from the kitchen side to the other side to have the designated table server place them and vice versa at cleanup time. Not only was this a cumbersome process, but the “slide-across” expanse was a whopping 42” which was longer than I could reach over even on my tip-toes. Then, because the space was enclosed in a “U” shape, there really wasn’t room for more than one cook to operate comfortably.  The only good thing I found this massive peninsula handy for was folding laundry.  (There was a laundry closet also in this kitchen –also not my idea!)

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An opposite scenario I recall (sorry Cousin Beth –I’m thinking of your kitchen in Texas) was a Texas-sized kitchen that had a lot of useless space and not enough relative countertop work area –I’m recalling it was about 16’ to 18’ square with a built in pantry, cabinets lining the walls, a giant peninsula that served to collect mail and children’s class projects and a big open expanse of nothing in the middle that just screamed for an island.  I’ll always wonder if the people who bought it from my cousin put an island in.  I hope they did.  I would have loved to do the remodel on that one.


There was a lovely couple that were remodel clients of mine a couple of years ago who had nearly an identical kitchen in size and layout that DID remodel it –taking out the peninsula and replacing it with a very large cluster of cabinetry in an odd-shaped configuration that mirrored the odd shape of their six-sided kitchen.  Among the many wrong things with the design was the shear size of it.  The granite countertop alone took a dozen people to carry into the space (after the entry door was removed).  It is so wide that you have to climb on top of it to clean the middle of it because (unless you’re Andre the Giant) you can’t reach across it.  The granite expanse was so large it had to be in two pieces so having a seam was unavoidable.  Thus, I’ve labeled this one a kitchen continent –not an island. This one could have been designed with two levels with a bank of stools or chairs on one side that would have made it much more functional and easier to maintain, but the clients wanted it all one level.  From what I’ve heard they’re still pleased with the design choice but I shutter to think what difficulty they will have if they ever want to sell their place.

glass counter idea 

The opposite of the kitchen continent is the kitchen atoll.  By this I am referring to kitchen islands that are added because –well they just want one and there really isn’t the space for it so they are too small, fairly useless and just create obstacles.  Common issues I have seen are 24” deep islands with cooktops which is a hazard. (Imagine somebody passing on the outside and bumping into a hot pan.)  Another very common problem is insufficient space between the island and the opposing bank of cabinets.  Very often designers allow for the minimum space suggested by NKBA guidelines without thinking too much about how the clients are really going to use the space.  This is where the “design program’ becomes critical and needs to address the number of people who will be using the space and how.  It’s essential to address appliance openings in the space.  Do the doors bang into things when open and will they open all the way?  Do they allow for people to walk around them when the doors are open?  Can you easily clean around them without banging up the cabinetry?

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A trend that I’ve seen a lot in magazines lately (thinking about the last two Kitchens of the Year by House Beautiful) are the really big galley kitchens with one side actually being an island.  This design often works well for entertaining or cooking demonstrations where guests can belly up to the bar opposite the cook.  But beware that this scheme really doesn’t work well for multiple cooks and planning the space for “zones” (like a commercial kitchen) is a critical aspect for this type of design to be successful.  Also important is locating the dining facilities adjacent to this space –otherwise you’ll need to don a pair of roller skates to circumnavigate this monstrosity.

2009 HB Kitchen of the Year 



Another aspect of islands to address is what is going above it. I am (guilty as charged your honor) of designing islands with pot racks above them.  This is my preference (for my own kitchen) but one needs to consider how the island is going to be used.  Will there be people on opposite sides of the island that need/want to communicate without a giant “thing” hanging in front of their faces.  Problem is, if you locate the pot rack so that the pots don’t impede communication, it may be too high up to actually use the pot hanger easily.






Also, it’s important to consider how to light the surface of the island.  A pot rack can block the light –or actually be a light fixture itself.  If you opt to place light pendants over the island, there are other considerations to address –most of which are aesthetic.  Very often the fixtures may not be the correct scale in relation to the island and people may try to compensate by adding too many of them to make up for their small size.  Another problem is the same one caused by pot racks that are hanging in the line of vision between people on opposite sides of the island.  Also, if the island is ‘over-lit’ it looks like it’s standing under a glaring spotlight with the rest of the kitchen dissolving into the background.

HB10 HB5

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Fast forward to now to my tiny kitchen –also U shaped with dysfunctional obstacle peninsula. OH I CAN’T WAIT TO MOVE –but the house I have put an offer in on has a U-shaped kitchen too as nearly every other one of the builder-grade homes I’ve seen in this area. I can assure you I have allotted a budget to remodel it… to have an island.

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