Our Top Kitchen Island Design Tips That Bring Function and Style

Keep these tips in mind when designing a kitchen island to maximize functionality and provide a welcoming centerpiece to your space.

kitchen island

Most kitchen designs can accommodate an island, but some, such as a narrow galley, just don't offer enough space. In some layouts, an island might be in the way—you should be able to get to all major work areas (such as a sink, fridge, and cooktop) without an island obstructing your path. And sometimes, even when there's room for an island, a peninsula provides better surface area and more out-of-the-way seating. The National Kitchen & Bath Association recommends at least 42 inches between an island and perimeter cabinets and appliances. If multiple cooks use the kitchen, a 48-inch-wide work aisle is recommended. If you want your island to include seating, allow at least 44 inches for walking behind a seated diner and at least 60 inches for wheelchair access.

"The proportion of an island in relation to the entire kitchen is its most important feature," says custom cabinetry designer Kevin Ritter of Timeless Kitchen Design in Malvern, Pennsylvania. "It dictates the flow and determines whether it's a comfortable space."

How Do You Want To Use the Island?

kitchen island

If you want an island that has all the amenities, remember that running gas, electric, and plumbing lines to it might increase your final cost.

Cooking: An island meant for cooking includes appliances such as a cooktop, range, microwave, and warming drawers. Make sure to consider ventilation needs, too.

Prepping meals: Though it might have a prep sink at one end, an island used mainly for preparation needs a large, uninterrupted surface. A dishwasher is a great addition for postmeal cleanup.

Entertaining: Space is key for an island used while entertaining. The countertop must provide ample surface for serving or dining. There should also be plenty of room for guests to mingle or be seated outside the work zones. "The ability to have your family or guests seated at the island while you work on the opposite side is very comforting and social," says Debbie Nassetta, of Roomscapes, Inc., in Laguna Niguel, California.

What Do You Need for Seating?

The kitchen is a popular spot for gathering, so seating is often included in island planning. Be sure you're leaving enough room for sitting comfortably. The National Kitchen & Bath Association recommends:

  • 18 inches of space above the knee when seated at a 30-inch-high counter.
  • 15 inches of space above the knee when seated at a 36-inch-high counter.
  • 12 inches of space above the knee when seated at a 42-inch-high counter.
  • 24 inches of countertop space, per seat, to accommodate elbowroom.

What Are Your Island Design Opportunities?

kitchen with cream cabinets and blue painted island

Don't be fooled: An island doesn't have to be rectangular. You can conform the shape to better suit your kitchen's space and needs—or just to make a dramatic focal point. Rounded, L-shape, and T-shape islands are some of the more common substitutes for rectangles.

Freestanding islands, such as tables and carts, are often used in small kitchens to keep the room from feeling cramped. They're generally less permanent than a built-in. Built-in islands look like furniture. They are typically custom-made and can include any kind of island amenity, including seating, appliances, storage, and fixtures.

A well-lit work area is a safety essential, so think about lighting when planning your island. A kitchen benefits most from mixing lighting types, such as recessed, ceiling-mount, and natural light. Pendants are the common fixtures above islands because they provide concentrated task light on the work surface.

"Use the island as an opportunity to add bold, contrasting, unexpected, or unusual materials," cabinetry designer Kevin Ritter says. Your island base is a good place to start. A dark wood finish or color really stands out against a room full of otherwise light, neutral cabinetry. If your perimeter cabinets are plain in design, try an island with embellishments, such as curvy corbels, crown molding, or turned legs, for a subtly grander statement. Even something as simple as switching up the island's hardware can make for a distinct change in character.

What Features Work For You?

kitchen island

The island top is a smart place to specialize your kitchen work zones. For instance, butcher block is popular for islands used largely for food preparation, while marble is often a baker's top choice. You don't have to choose a single surface—many homeowners vary the materials atop the island, by insetting a strip of butcher block, for example.

Maintenance is an important consideration when choosing countertop materials. Porous substances such as granite or marble require routine maintenance and sealing for both food safety and aesthetic upkeep, while other surfaces, such as laminate, quartz- and solid-surfacing, require less attention.

Whatever your plans to use your island, you'll probably also need it to provide storage. When planning base cabinetry, consider these specialized storage solutions.

  • Extra-deep drawers easily hold bulky items such as pots and large mixing bowls. Even for smaller kitchen gadgets, drawers are a great solution because they pull out for easy access instead of making you reach deep into the back of cabinetry to search for items.
  • Vertical slots are ideal for baking sheets and serving trays.
  • Open shelving keeps frequently used items, such as cookbooks, serving dishes, or even everyday dinnerware, within reach.
  • Display storage, such as glass-front cabinets or shallow open shelves, uses the end of an island to show off heirloom china or other collections.
  • Drawer inserts hold dishes, silverware, or cutlery to efficiently use drawer space. Inserts are often customizable and can change to store different items.

Extra features can also make your island a showstopper that suits your kitchen's needs. A built-in recycling area helps you help the environment. Easily accessible electrical outlets make food prep easier. Stowing items at the ends of an island maximizes storage.

Keep your island countertop sparkling with these tips!

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