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Brains and Beauty
By Tracy Dickinson
home :: home & garden :: kitchen & bath

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Today’s kitchen islands do more than just serve as work stations.

Today’s kitchen islands do more than just serve as work stations.

Nearly all but the smallest home kitchens in the U.S. include an island, either as a central feature or to break up an open layout. But islands are more than standard design elements. Done well, an island can bring brains and beauty to the heart of the home.

The Brains of the Kitchen

The old adage “form follows function” holds true for island designs. Even the most beautiful look is enhanced by well-planned functionality.

Briana Burrell of Sunderland Brothers says, “I believe kitchen islands have multiple functions. Not only do they serve as extra prep space but also a place for conversations to take place.”

“Islands can serve a lot of different functions, from a prep or work space area, additional cooking area, additional seating, or gathering space,” says AIM Kitchen & Bath’s Corey Gersdorf. “Using an island is a great way to keep the space open, not blocking part of the room off, while giving you additional storage and usable countertop.”

For one feature to serve so many purposes, attention to every detail of the design is crucial. And that means focusing on homeowners’ needs.

“I really home in on how the homeowner wants to use an island, who uses it, and what their must-haves are,” explains Jill Lampe from Woodharbor. “I also ask a lot of questions about how they work in their kitchen so I can create a design where the island becomes an integral part.”

Gersdorf says, “With all of the new options and accessories, you don’t have to keep your island basic. Islands are a lot more user-friendly and more functional, from adding bookshelves for cookbooks, bar sinks, pull-out trash cans, and mixer shelves. You can really design your island around your needs and wants.”

Some key questions to ask yourself as you consider the best island design for your kitchen include these: How much space do you have available? What tasks do you want to use the island for? If including seating, how many people do you need to accommodate? How much storage does your kitchen offer without the island? Do you have unique requirements—specialty appliances, particular cooking or baking styles, accessibility concerns? Will you need to add plumbing, electrical, or gas lines to address those needs?

Beisser’s Rob Walker says, “I feel the island really is the hub of most kitchens we do. It is the homework center, mail sorting area, place for rolling out Christmas cookies and putting spice rub on ribs for the grill, and everything in between.”

Doing the Job Beautifully

Designing an island to serve all these functions is a challenge. However, when creating the ideal island for your kitchen, “functional” does not have to mean “utilitarian.” With the increased availability of durable, yet stylish materials and products, the island can remain a focal point and serve its purpose beautifully at the same time.

Lampe says, “The island is becoming more of a statement piece. My clients are looking for more detail and getting braver about wanting statement-piece countertops to highlight the island.”

She adds that although granite countertops remain the most popular, quartz is the dominant choice for most homeowners because of its low maintenance and the variety of new colors and patterns that are now available in the last few years.

“Projects where the island is a different material than the rest of the kitchen are very popular,” Walker says. “One neat example we did at Beisser was a kitchen with very subtle quartz on the perimeter and an artistic and unique slab of granite for the island. We put a distinct piece of artwork in the middle of the kitchen to draw the eyes toward.”

Sunderland Brothers’ Shelby Silvers says, “One beautiful, modern feature I’ve seen is adding a waterfall edge to the countertop,” which extends the countertop material over the edge and a partway down the side.

Similarly, using a complementary cabinet finish on the island can enhance that focal point and even create the look of a stand-alone piece of furniture. “Changing the color of the island cabinets along with using a unique quartz or granite countertop can really make the island a standout feature,” says Silvers.

“Whether you’re using a distressed finish, paints with glazes, adding decorative features like corbels or turnings, you can add a lot of decorative features to the island,” Gersdorf says.

Walker also advises thinking outside the box. “Don’t just have a rectangle shape,” he suggests. “We have done arches to mimic the arch in cabinet details or a custom angle to allow for traffic flow and seating.”

Oversize islands are also popular, sometimes expanded to allow for dining space, eliminating the need for a separate dining area within the kitchen.

A quick scroll through Pinterest or Houzz will provide you with a wealth of ideas to make your kitchen island stand out. But as these designers have shown, some expert advice can marry beauty and brains, giving you a gorgeous focal point that makes your kitchen function like a dream.

Think About It

Here are some features to keep in mind for your own island design:

  • Pullout trash & recycling bins
  • Pullout spice racks
  • Cookie sheet and tall dish storage
  • Deep storage drawers for pots and pans
  • Custom appliance storage
  • Pop-up exhaust fans
  • Accent lighting
  • Wine or beverage coolers
  • Warming drawers


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