Islands are very popular features in kitchen layouts – but an island is not automatically a useful feature, or a good use of space, in every kitchen.
There are several things to consider when you start working on kitchen island designs.
Do you have the space?
First, and most important, do you have space for a kitchen island at all? You need aisle space on both sides of the island. The recommended aisle width is 48″, although 42″ will do and 36″ is a tight-squeeze minimum where there is no through traffic. For the island itself, a minimum useful width is 2 feet and most people would want their island wider than this.
Here are some example kitchen island designs showing the amount of space taken up by an island in various situations.
Kitchen with Central Island
Using the minimum island width of 2ft, 42″ aisles, and 2ft deep cabinets and countertops round the edges of the room, you would need a room 13 feet wide to fit an island into the middle.
L-shaped Kitchen with Island
For an L-shaped kitchen with a 5′ x 3′ island tucked into the L and 4 foot aisles, you’d need a space 9 feet by 11 feet.
Single Line Kitchen with Separator Island
If you want to use a 3′ 8″ x 7″ island opposite a single line counter, to separate a kitchen in a larger room like a great room from the rest of the room, for a four foot aisle allow a space 9’8″ deep by the length of the main counter.
If your kitchen is simply too small to allow a built-in island, like my own 8ft wide galley kitchen, you can use a kitchen island cart instead. With a cart, you can roll it out into place when you need it, and tuck it away when you don’t.
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What Will Your Kitchen Island Designs Include?
You can have an island which is simply all countertop, or you can include appliances, a sink, an eating area, etc.
The two main issues to consider for a cooktop in an island are venting and safety.
Venting: obviously, with an island cooktop you can’t have a ventilation hood above it on the wall because there is no wall! You have three choices – a vent hood suspended from the ceiling above the cooktop, a pop-up vent, or a downdraft vent.
Safety: an island cooktop is accessible from more than just the front, which makes it easier for children and even adults to accidentally contact a hot burner. A narrow island where the rear of the cooktop is right at the back edge of the island is particularly bad for this. It can also be a problem when you have an eating area at counter height at the back of the range. A solution to this problem is to have a two level island where the eating area is above the range, or there is simply a raised ledge at the back of the island protecting the range (and perhaps also acting as a leaning or serving shelf).
Sinks don’t pose the safety issues of cooktops, nor do they need venting in the same way. They do need their own special plumbing vent arrangements though, which can be quite awkward. Depending on the specific arrangement of your kitchen, water feed lines and drainage lines might also be more or less difficult to arrange.
Many people also dislike the idea of “sink mess” being on view as much as it can be with an island sink. This mostly applies to main cleanup sinks where dirty dishes are stacked before being washed – small prep sinks don’t seem to create as much mess. A raised area, eating counter or ledge at the back of the island can hide the sink mess from view, and provide a useful location for electrical outlets, without cutting off the views in and out of the kitchen.
Eating Areas in Islands
The most common kind of eating area combined with an island is an overhanging counter-height area at one side or end, or possibly both. This is used with stools or counter-height chairs. However, you can also have more than one level on your island, raising your eating area to bar height, 42″, or lowering it to table height, 30″. The overhang needed for an eating area depends on the height: table height needs 18″, counter height needs 15″, and bar height needs 12″. In general, allow 24″ of width for each place setting if you don’t want adults bumping elbows.
Watch out for the clearance needed behind your chairs or stools. If there’s no traffic passing by behind, you need 32″ from the edge of the table or counter to the wall. If there will be people passing behind your seated diners, 36″ will let them edge past, but you’d be better with 44″ so that they can walk past. If there are appliances on the wall behind the chairs or stools, you need even more space to allow for appliance doors to open.
How Will Your Island Relate to Nearby Work Zones?
Your new island needs to be designed in relation to other work zones in the kitchen near it. It might indeed form part of nearby work zones. For example, a refrigerator needs a landing zone close by to put things down as you take them out of or put them into the fridge. An island across from a fridge can serve as the landing zone. This is works especially well with side-by-side or french door fridges, where both sides of the fridge are “hinge sides” so you can’t put a landing zone beside the fridge on the side away from the hinge.
Similarly, if you have a prep sink in the island it should relate to your food storage area and your cooking area.
If possible, in cases like this, the aisle you cross from landing zone to fridge, or prep sink to cooktop, should not be a through traffic path.
Custom Kitchen Islands
Unless you’re using a movable island like a kitchen island cart that you can buy off the shelf, just about every island is custom in the sense that it is unlike any other, and is made to fit your space and needs. Custom kitchen islands cover a range from the completely custom-made and custom-finished island to match your custom cabinets, to a much more economical island made out of standard size cabinets and countertops assembled in creative ways.
Custom Touches for Your Island
Given some arrangement of cabinets (wall and/or base) which form the base of your island, you can customize it in many ways.
- Change levels up to bar height or down to table height
- Combine more than one countertop material: perhaps a butcherblock prep area with a marble slab for pastry
- use a custom-shaped countertop which overhangs the cabinets
- Panel the non-door ends and sides of your island with decorative materials like beadboard, tile, end panels from your cabinet range, even wallpaper or fabric (varnished for protection)
- Add legs to the ends, or to support an eating overhang. Check old farm tables for proportions and sizes: some island legs I’ve seen in magazines are way oversized and clunky-looking to my eye.
- Use corbels to support overhangs as well as or instead of legs. These could match corbels used elsewhere in the kitchen, perhaps supporting a hood over the range.
- Add feet to the bottom of your base cabinets in the toekick area
- Do without a toekick and have legs or a pedestal instead, especially in historic houses where this would have been done in the original period. Try the pedestal idea before you do it, to make sure you can still work at the counter without banging your toes.
- Use small spaces between your base cabinets for cookbook shelves, bottle storage, display niches, cutting board or baking sheet storage, pull-out towel storage, narrow pullout racks for spices, etc.