Navigating Today’s New Kitchen Islands

Kitchens have gone through many changes during the past 50 years. Features that once were considered luxuries are now expected by consumers. The kitchen island is one such feature. Unfortunately, not all kitchens can accommodate an island. The island may create a space problem or actually impede traffic flow.

The term “island kitchen” could mean 80 percent or more of the cabinets, appliances and counter surfaces are in the island with only a few tall cabinets against the remaining wall space. Imagine a condo on top of a high-rise in downtown Chicago. The kitchen has a 270-degree view of Lake Michigan. Or maybe your client is on the island of Maui with a spectacular view of Haleakala National Park or the outer banks of the Carolinas with an ocean view. In these rare circumstances the island would comprise the bulk of the kitchen.

For most people, however, the “island kitchen” simply means an island in their kitchen. As designers, our first responsibility is to make sure there is room for the island. The National Kitchen and Bath Association has several recommendations that will help ensure a functional as well as safe island. These recommendations can be found in NKBA’s 31 Kitchen Planning Guidelines book, which is available at

NKBA suggests a work space for the cook of 42 in. between the counter overhang of the main part of the kitchen to the overhang of the island counter. Handles for appliances that protrude beyond the counter overhang would also be included in the spacing requirement. Because many kitchens with islands are used by more than one cook, the 42-in. minimum recommendation would be increased for multiple cooks or helpers to 48 in.

Another factor in determining the size of the island would be its function. If you and your client decide the island would be a perfect cooking center, the size would be based on several things. First, to function properly, the island must be large enough to contain a complete cooking center, including the cooking surface, pot and pan storage for the most frequently used items, drawer storage for utensils and lids, counter work space and space behind the cooking surface to prevent accidental access. Mechanical elements such as task lighting and ventilation also should be included. The minimum size for a cooking center with a 36-in. cooktop would be about 72 in. by 35 in. A sink and cleanup center would be a little longer (minimum 84 in.) but could be as little as 26 in. deep unless you stored the frequently used dishes on the island side opposite the sink and dishwasher.

Islands often encourage family members or guests to help during meal preparation or cleanup. A second sink almost always is a welcome addition to an island regardless of the island’s main function. But before you convince the homeowner of the second sink’s value, determine if plumbing the sink is possible. Don’t forget that the island must have GFCI-protected receptacles.

If space is a problem for one of the major centers, consider a simple work island. A 36-in.-wide base cabinet would meet the minimum preparation center recommended by NKBA. If work space around the island is not possible, consider mounting a smaller base cabinet on casters. It could provide a backup counter/work space at almost any center in the kitchen then be rolled out of the way when not in use.

Many islands serve dual purposes. A popular second use for the island would be for dining. To ensure a comfortable dining space, make certain to provide at least 24 in. per seated diner and add an extra 6 in. for family members or guests using wheelchairs. Failure to provide adequate knee space can result in bruised knees or damage to back panels beneath the knee space. The necessary knee space decreases as the diners’ hips are located at higher elevations. For typical chair height of 29 to 30 in., plan a knee space of 18 in., or 19 in. for a wheelchair. A 15-in. depth is ideal for 36-in. eating counters and 12 in. will be all that is needed by the time the counter is set at a height of 42 in.

Designing the Island

The appearance of the island can be equally important as the function. Award-winning kitchens often use the island as the main focal point of the space. This can be accomplished by changing the color of the cabinets making up the island or altering the countertop color and/or material. Consider the statement the island makes as your client enters the kitchen area. Is the island the first thing you see? If so, does the back side of the island reflect the theme of the overall kitchen design? I have often seen a plain wood panel on the back side of the island while the kitchen is filled with beaded raised-panel doors, crown moulding and other decorative elements. Individual panels that match the cabinet doors would be the obvious choice. When using a less decorative door for a country theme, consider beaded board paneling. Save the plain panels for the contemporary kitchens.

If the kitchen opens to a larger space, you might want the back side of the island to take on more of a furniture look. The side facing the remainder of the space could be designed for looks, while the inside of the island should be designed for function. Occasionally, the island is needed to block some of the clutter associated with meal preparation and serving. In that case, an elevated section on the back side of the island is appropriate. This elevated counter can be a socializing area or with at least a 12-in.-deep knee space, an informal dining area for family and friends. Once again, heavily carved corbels would be expected for a formal kitchen while more simple braces would be sufficient for a less formal space.

Ends of islands are great areas for recessed wine storage or cookbooks. Keep in mind almost all of the information above would be relevant to a peninsula if an island will not fit within the space. Remember, the best island is the one that functions on the inside and is appropriate to the style of the kitchen on the outside.

David Newton, CMKBD, has been involved in the kitchen and bathroom industry for more than 37 years. His experience includes cabinet building, project installation, kitchen design and layout as well as sales. Newton has served homeowners, builders and developers. In 1989, Newton formed David Newton and Associates and devoted 100 percent of his time to training kitchen and bath designers. As a full-time kitchen and bathroom trainer since 1986, he shares his experience, knowledge and new trends in the industry with others.