How to design a kitchen island

Not sure if we’ve ever had a client who didn’t want a kitchen island.

It doesn’t really come as  a surprise since there are so many ways to use one:

– extra food preparation area (and we who cook at home know there’s no such thing as too much free worktop)
– a place for your guests to gather around
– a place for serving finger food or entrees when hosting dinner parties
– storage space
– a place for eating breakfast – or any other meal for that matter

But to design a kitchen island that will serve you the best, you need to consider both the way you want to use it and the size of your kitchen. And even though you don’t want to hear this, the size of your kitchen has the final saying in this decision.

The truth is, sometimes the kitchen island does more damage than good.

1. When it’s too close to the kitchen counters

Ideally, the distance should be 120 cm. Less than 105 cm is too close. If you really, really want one, depending on the position of your oven and the dishwasher, the minimum distance is 90 cm. But you see, you have to be able to fully open the dishwasher and the oven, and use them properly. That’s just common sense.

Also, 120 cm wide corridor (and space between any two elements is a corridor) allows for two people to pass by without bumping into each other. A fact pretty important for such a busy place, don’t you think?

2. When it’s too far from the kitchen counter

A maximum acceptable distance between the worktop on the kitchen counters and the worktop on the kitchen island is two steps. That’s approximately 120 cm. Three steps between worktops mean you’ll never use that island for food preparation – at least you’ll hate using it.

3. When the worktop is too low or too high

The height of the kitchen island has to match the height of the kitchen. It has to!

It shouldn’t be as high as a dining table* (72-75 cm) because it won’t be comfortable to use it (back pain is no joke). It shouldn’t be as high as a bar (110-120 cm) because it won’t be possible to use it. It should be high as lower kitchen cabinets: 85-90 cm.

*However, when placed right, it is possible, and quite practical, to use the dining table as an additional worktop. But that’s just a creative solution for when you don’t have enough room in your home for a bigger kitchen. It’s not the best way ever to plan your kitchen.

4. When you place stools around it, but it’s not designed in a way that enables sitting

We know: stools can be beautiful. And we know: you want to have people sitting around your kitchen island, casually drinking wine while you cook.

But in reality, people will just awkwardly try to sit while having no place for their legs. That’s no way to entertain your guests!

5. When it’s filled with stuff

Don’t we all just love to style every single surface in our homes with cute jars, and candles, and plants? The kitchen island (much like the kitchen worktop itself) loses it’s purpose when filled with decorations. It’s a work – top. It should be occupied by work. Not objects.

With all that in mind, let’s see some common kitchen island solutions and find the one that works best for you. Better yet, let’s see some amazing (not-as-common) kitchen island designs and find out what we can learn from them. While doing that, we’ll concentrate on two things: one being the point of the kitchen island, and the other one its appearance. Because we can’t really design anything if we don’t think about those two things.

1. Kitchen island as additional worktop

In our opinion, providing additional worktop is the single most useful feature of the kitchen island.

We love this solution from Malte Wittenberg architektur + Studio BLB’s Art Apart. It’s literally a worktop. Because – look at that kitchen – there’s no need for more storage space. The island is so elegant and chic, designed as an oversized table, but look: the height matches the height of kitchen countertop. Plus, it’s no secret we love stone in interiors.

kitchen island | kitchen island style | Malte Wittenberg Architektur & Studio BLB – Art Apart
Malte Wittenberg Architektur & Studio BLB – Art Apart // photo: © NOSHE

Notice the contrast between the kitchen and its island. The kitchen is white and solid while the dark island basically floats above the floor.

And what about this beauty?

kitchen island | plywood kitchen | black kitchen | JRKVC – TRN Apartment Refurbishment
JRKVC – TRN Apartment Refurbishment // photo: © Peter Jurkovič

The island is made of same materials and is designed equally minimalistic as the rest of the kitchen. If you saw the rest of the apartment, you probably know how much sense that makes. In case you missed it, you can check it out here.

The backside of the kitchen island is a design issue because, on the one hand, it’s the backside of the element, and on the other hand, it’s usually seen from the representative part of the home.

That’s why we love this solution, where the backside is designed as a display. How smart is that?

2. Kitchen island as a feature element

Oh, how gorgeous are those kitchen islands that act as if they were sculptures in the home!

kitchen | plywood kitchen | wood | plywood | kitchen island | i.s.m.architecten – TDH
i.s.m.architecten – TDH // photo: © Luis Diaz Diaz

See how everything kinda revolves around them? These are perfect examples of spaces that needed a kitchen island, instead of the owners that wanted one.

Once again, you can see in i.s.m.architecten’s TDH house the same materials on the island as you can see on the rest of the kitchen cabinets (and entire house for that matter). But with one side detached from the floor, it manages to stand out.

Interior lighting | ambient light | ceiling lighting | kitchen | kitchen island | Ralph Germann – Apartment SMT
Ralph Germann – Apartment SMT // photo: © Lionel Henriod

But in the Apartment SMT, with its cool, polished, stainless steel finish, the kitchen island is clearly something else – an abstract object placed in the middle of the kitchen. Isn’t stainless steel in kitchens the best?

3. Kitchen island for gathering around

When designing a kitchen island as a potential social area of the home, you have to treat it that way. You have to chose the right kind of lighting you have to decide on a number of seats. You have to design it wide enough to enable cooking and eating/hanging around – at the same time. Because if that’s not possible, then you’ve basically created an extra dining table.

When in doubt, we always ask ourselves something like: “what would AKTA studio or BLA architettura do?”

kitchen |green kitchen | kitchen island | minimalistic kitchen | AKTA studio – Apartment in Basanavičius st.
AKTA studio – Apartment in Basanavičius st., Vilnius // photo: © Leonas Garbačauskas

AKTA studio clearly designed the kitchen island as a part of the kitchen, but used the power of interior lighting to enhance its social character. See that lamp above the island? Perfect!

On the other hand, BLA architettura literally separated kitchen part of the island from the social part. And they’ve done it beautifully.

industrial kitchen | kitchen | concrete kitchen island | BLA ARCHITETTURA – Morrissey

kitchen island | concrete kitchen island | BLA ARCHITETTURA – Morrissey
BLA ARCHITETTURA – Morrissey // photo: © Beppe Giardino

Choice of materials (wood for the kitchen, concrete for the island), combined with an empty metal framework, shows that the space around the island was meant to be independent and work as a buffer between the living room area and the kitchen.

Hop over here to read more about gorgeous solutions designed by BLA architettura. They are the best!

4. Kitchen as an island

So kitchen islands we all know and love. But what if the kitchen was an island?

We’re talking about kitchens where the island gathers main kitchen elements: stove and sink.

Extreme? Yes. But sometimes so reasonable.

You see, the number one reason our clients say when they’re explaining why they want a kitchen island, is because they want to be included in the conversation with their guests when they cook. But when you think about it, cooking happens on the stove. In the classic kitchen with an island, you turn your back on your guests.

Detaching kitchen from the back wall and bringing it to the centre of the space, is the ultimate way to design a kitchen as a social space. Look at this!

kitchen island | white kitchen | minimalistic kitchen | HASA Architects - Bankside apartment

minimalistic kitchen | white kitchen | simple kitchen | HASA Architects - Bankside apartment
HASA ArchitectsBankside apartment // photo: © James Whitaker Photographer

This carefully proportioned island marks the kitchen from the living area. Both kitchen and living room areas have been designed as open and engaging spaces where the family comes together to cook, eat and relax.

kitchen island | terrazzo kitchen | minimalistic kitchen | Danilo and Katarina's apartment

kitchen island | terrazzo kitchen | minimalistic kitchen | Danilo and Katarina's apartment // photo: Danilo&Sharon
Danilo and Katarina’s apartment // photo: Danilo&Sharon

While the kitchen in HASA’s Bankside apartment almost blends in with the background (we love that white!), Danilo and Katarina played with form and materials, and ‘framed’ the island with this amazing white terrazzo slabs. The result is even more stunning because of the fact they designed it all by themselves (and they are not the architects but amazing photographers!).

Notice the size of the island. It is huge! And in order to be functional, it has to be.

We love it empty like it’s on photographs, but we can also imagine it surrounded by dozen people, sitting and standing around. And in our opinion, that’s how you recognize a well-designed space!

. . .

It is quite challenging to design a good kitchen island. But if you follow few basic rules, it won’t be that hard. Just remember to think about the point of your kitchen island. Why are you designing one?

And of course: its form, its additional functions, its materials and how they match (or don’t match) with the rest of the kitchen. In case you decide to have the rest of the kitchen.

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