Islands are an essential part of any larger kitchen layout, increasing counter space, storage space, and eating space as well as offering a visual focal point for the kitchen area. Serving a variety of functions, they can be designed in a variety of different ways, with some incorporating stools or chairs, sinks, drawers, or even dishwashers and microwaves. To determine which elements to include and how to arrange them, designers must determine the main purpose or focus of the island. Will it primarily serve as a breakfast bar, a space to entertain guests, an extension of the kitchen, or as something else? And with this function in mind, how should it enhance the kitchen workflow vis-à-vis the rest of the area? These considerations, combined with basic accessibility requirements, necessitate that the design of the island be carefully thought out. Below, we enumerate some of the essential factors of kitchen island design.
The size of the kitchen island is extremely important for both aesthetic and functional reasons. An island that is too large will overwhelm the kitchen area and inhibit movement, potentially limiting the workflow of someone cooking or washing the dishes and thereby lowering the functionality of the space. Thus, an island should have at least four feet of space around it on each side, leaving enough room for appliances to open and for people to walk comfortably through the area.
In contrast, an island that is too small may indicate that the island was unnecessary to begin with, adding little enough counter space, storage space, appliances, and seating space that it should be replaced with a cart or table instead. If the kitchen is small enough that the island must be less than two or three feet in length, it may better serve its users to leave the space open. Thus, an ideal kitchen island should be at least three feet wide, and at least four feet long to accommodate either double cabinets or a bar overhang. A kitchen large enough to accommodate an island should be at least 13 feet long.
Finally, the height of the island is typically either 36 or 42 inches high, the former being a comfortable counter height and the latter permitting a higher bar area for elevated seating. Islands that are 42 inches high often have two levels or tiers to accommodate seating and counter space separately. Two-tiered islands permit more creative designs and variations, but counter-height islands are simpler and facilitate more uniformity.
Depending on the size of the kitchen and the desired workflow for users, kitchen islands can have a varying number of appliances, including a sink, microwave, dishwasher, or even a stove. For designers hoping to keep it simple, it may be best to house only drawers and cabinets in the island alongside a breakfast bar or seating. For clients who are avid cooks and want expanded kitchen stations or additional cooktops and sinks, adding the aforementioned appliances come with an additional set of important considerations. An island sink should either be accompanied by an island dishwasher or placed in close proximity to a dishwasher against the wall. If a stovetop is incorporated, it may be best to do away with the breakfast bar, and a range hood must be installed as well. Finally, adding outlets to the island could prove highly beneficial for cooks consulting recipes or guests seated at the breakfast bar. To avoid overcrowding the island, the designer should choose carefully which appliances to include rather than selecting them all.
These considerations are closely related to the issue of kitchen workflow. As with any interior space, the designer is responsible for considering flows of movement and areas of pause as well as expected routines and appliance relationships. For example, again, a sink should be placed near a dishwasher, and drawers for bins near the sink. Likewise, it’s essential to have counter space near a sink or a stove, but a breakfast bar generally should not bleed into a cooktop or the people seated will be directly exposed to the fumes and the heat of the cooking. However, adequate spacing or tiers, if done well, can circumvent this requirement. Moreover, a common rule called the ‘working triangle’ indicates that each workspace – i.e. a stovetop, sink, fridge, or oven – should be between four and nine feet apart. This rule is an important reason why the designer should not overload the island with appliances, and adhering to it will allow users to work as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Finally, although designers may hope to include as much seating as possible, seats too close together may inhibit users from eating comfortably without bumping elbows or otherwise running into each other. Naturally, ergonomic concerns are an inescapable part of designing for spaces as active as the kitchen.
Storage considerations tie to considerations of appliances and workflow, as the designer must strike a delicate balance between incorporating additional workspaces and maximizing storage in the kitchen island. If there are ample cabinets and drawers elsewhere in the kitchen, designers can prioritize adding appliances or expanding the breakfast bar area. If storage is a primary concern, then they may have to sacrifice one of the other kitchen island functions. This issue relates to questions of depth and height as well. Because islands typically involve some combination of cabinets and drawers, designers must accommodate standard cabinet and drawer heights and depths alongside appliances and basic sizing requirements.
Finally, lighting is one of the primary ways in which a kitchen island design can set itself apart aesthetically, as many islands incorporate accent lights such as pendant lights or other statement lighting pieces. Particularly for islands with breakfast bars and cooktops, adequate lighting is essential for users to be able to see their food, whether they are cooking or eating.
These considerations are just some of the many that go into making a kitchen island design stand out. To read more about residential kitchen design or kitchen furniture, check out our articles on How to Correctly Design and Build a Kitchen or Space-Saving Furniture Designs for Efficient Kitchens.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2020.