15 Tips for Kitchen Center Islands

If the islands of your dreams harbor cooktops and prep sinks rather than ships, you may be primed for words of wisdom about kitchen center islands. Oregon Home talked with three kitchen designers and an architect about how to navigate through the choices you need to make—height? width? shape? in-island appliances?—to end up with a kitchen icon that cooks.

[1. Be Realistic about how large a center island you should squeeze into a room the size of your kitchen.]

A center island is a great way to increase functionality in a kitchen. “Adding an island to a kitchen can improve the flow of traffic through the room,” says William Roy of William Roy Designer Kitchens in Portland. “If you open the refrigerator, for example, you’re not blocking off the entire kitchen as you are in some kitchens; you can just zip around to the other end.” But if you can’t access an island, it hinders rather than improves kitchen flow. Most designers recommend that you allow at least 3 feet of clearance around the island.

However, even if you have the clearance space for a large island, an island that is too large becomes difficult to use. “Bigger is not always better,” says kitchen designer Patricia Hartford of Patricia Hartford Kitchen LLC in Sherwood, Ore., and Rockaway Beach, Ore., who loves to rework kitchens in period homes. “You don’t want to have an area you can’t reach or that you need to climb on top of something to get to.”

[2. Don’t let the shape of your kitchen dictate the shape of your center island.]

While the layout of a kitchen will impose some restraints on your island, it shouldn’t predetermine its eventual design. Function, rather than form, should be the initial starting point.

“I tend to design an island around the functions it needs to allow the cooks in the house  to perform,” says architect Liz Dexter, the owner of Reveal Architecture and Interiors in Portland. “I approach the island shape in tandem with other things. The design drivers tend to be workspace, appliance function or eating space that needs to be accommodated.”

Discussing how you plan to use the space will yield a better design than assuming that a center island has to be a particular shape from the beginning.

[3. Fess up to being a small appliance lover before the cabinetmaker builds your center island.]

Electrical codes require that islands have outlets at each end of a center island and on either side of a sink. If you need more than that, you should spend some time thinking about outlet placement. Sticking extra outlets in the middle of an island or in other visible areas can hamper functionality and beauty. No one wants a plug set in the middle of a beautiful marble counter.      

With proper planning, outlets can be out of the way yet accessible. “I hate having the outlet visible, so sometimes I’ll extend the countertop and recess the plug, or tuck it in the knee space or a blank panel,” says Dexter. “I’m averse to taking a beautiful center island countertop and slapping an outlet in it.”
In addition to recessed or hidden outlets, hardware design companies such as Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Doug Mockett & Co. Inc. make spring-loaded grommets and vertical power pylons that pop up from a countertop when needed, but retract flush with the countertop when not in use.

[4. Aim not to end up with ‘ducks-in-a-row’ seating at your breakfast bar.]

Islands are popular, in part, because they often increase sociability, but a poorly thought-out eating or seating area can hamper personal interaction. According to Meg Johnson, a certified kitchen designer at Hillsboro, Ore.-based Pacific Design, too many seats can defeat the purpose of the eating area. “I encourage my clients not to have too much seating on an island unless it’s arranged a certain way,” she says. “The ideal configuration is two seats because it puts people side by side. It bothers me to see ‘ducks in a row.’ Some people line up six barstools, but that’s not conducive to having a conversation.” 

To accommodate a large family, Johnson suggests designing the island with  an extended overhang or a circular overhang at one end of the island, which will allow for face-to-face conversation.

[5. Know your food prep and cooking habits.]

Knowing how you plan to use the island will yield a functional design. Some people like to keep food preparation tasks separate from cooking, while others want to use an island for everything from food prep to cooking to cleanup. A designer is often helpful in figuring out a work triangle that works for the way you and your family like to prepare food and cook. 

“I like to create different center island layouts and start placing things and talk about how the island would function in each design,” says Roy. “Most people know whether they want to cook or prep food at an island, so I ask my clients where they like to prep their food and what they want to be looking at during food prep. Clients who like to entertain, for example, often want an island with a prep sink near the refrigerator so they can land directly on the island.”

[6. Factor in ergonomics as you settle on the depth and height of A breakfast bar.]

“Sometimes, when people design overhangs, they don’t leave enough space for people’s legs while they’re sitting; they just calculate how many inches the stools will take up when they’re tucked under the overhang,” says Hartford. “But if people can’t sit comfortably at the breakfast bar or are too far away from the countertop to easily reach their food, a breakfast bar becomes wasted space rather than functional space.”

Also, consider other uses for the bar besides eating. A raised breakfast bar can create a safety barrier between people and a cooktop as well as a space for family and guests to help with food preparations. “It can be a great place for kids,” says Johnson. “They can sit at the bar and help chop vegetables.”

[7. Look to the period of your home for design details to accent a center island.]

If you have the space for an island, and it will improve the flow of your kitchen, you can design an island to complement any style of home. While most people think of the center  island as a recent development, it’s likely a contemporary adaptation of the large worktables that were once common in kitchens. “In older homes, you want to create an aesthetic that fits the period, so an island might have a fir countertop or a marble counter surface,” says Hartford. “The island will be functional from a baking standpoint, but it won’t look just like the rest of the cabinets.”

The style of your home is an opportunity to be creative with the island’s look. “If you have a traditional home, you can add Craftsman details and make the island look like a piece of furniture,” says Johnson. “In a contemporary home, you can have a lot of fun with different countertop heights and materials and make the island look like a piece of sculpture. It’ll still be functional, but fun.”

[8. If your island will include a cooktop, select a heat-resistant material for the countertop.]

While a wide range of products such as concrete, cast glass, specialty woods and marble can be used as countertops, a solid, cleanable surface will work best near a cooktop. After all, you’ll likely be spilling and setting hot things on it.  “You want something durable that can also serve as a landing spot, but that’s not burnable and won’t scar,” says Hartford. Some good countertop materials are granite, Corian or CaesarStone. 

If you’re hankering to use materials such as marble or wood that can stain or damage easily, use them away from the cooktop areas of your island. For example, you can use a durable material near the stove, but create a pastry area with a marble countertop or a food prep area with butcherblock. Just keep in mind that these surfaces may require some maintenance. “You can either not care about getting stains and spots on a nondurable countertop or you can know that you’ll have to scrub it every time you spill something on it,” says Johnson.

[9. Guests enjoy watching A cook work, but they don’t necessarily want to look at a mess while eating.]

One of the benefits of a kitchen island is that, when entertaining, the cook and the guests can still visit. “Islands are very conducive to having people over and entertaining,” says Roy. “They can create a great spot to hang out.”

While it can be fun to watch how a meal is put together and discover a host’s cooking skills, most people don’t want to look at pots and pans when they relocate to the dining area. “The raised bar is an easy solution to this,” says Roy. “If you have an island that’s a uniform 36 inches high, you can’t leave out dirty dishes. But if you have a raised bar, you can tuck seasonings and things behind it without having it look cluttered.”

[10. If your household includes kids, think about how an island could serve their needs, too.]

If you have small children, an island, with some caveats, can be designed to incorporate their needs as well. “I’d probably not put an appliance in the island, so they can’t reach across and touch a hot handle or get splattered,“ says Hartford. “I’d create a space that’s functional from all sides, where you can do a range of activities—a family project, homework, baking. An island offers the opportunity for children to be close to their parents without being underfoot.” Pastry counters, which are often lowered to 33 inches, can provide a workspace for a child to do homework at, yet still function as part of the kitchen. 

[11. A kitchen island can help define a floorplan.]

If your home has a Great Room or an open floorplan, a kitchen center island can be an anchor that helps define how different areas will be used. In that case, a larger island can serve as more than just part of the kitchen. “Often a Great Room can have four of five functions, so a kitchen island can look funny if it’s small,” says Johnson. “If you make the island bigger and add wings on each side of it, it will better define that area of the Great Room as the kitchen space.”

[12. A movable island can improve how a kitchen functions.]

Some galley kitchens don’t have the space for an island. Other kitchens are  large enough for an island, but your lifestyle or budget might not make an investment in an island feasible. In these cases, an island cart that’s pushed against the wall can be a simple way to add workspace. While a movable island can’t include appliances, it can add features that are missing from your kitchen such as additional storage areas. “I’d recommend a well-done butcherblock with storage underneath,” says Dexter.

A movable island should have a work surface that’s at least 2 feet by 3 feet. Anything smaller, and your ingredients will fall off the edges. If you plan to use its shelves to store heavy items such as mixers or blenders, make sure they can support the weight. The legs should have locking casters. After all, you don’t want the cart to lurch across the kitchen while you’re slicing and dicing. 

[14. Downvent an island cooktop to preserve a world-class view.]

It’s great to work in a kitchen with a view of the Pacific or Mt. Hood. While islands often house appliances such as dishwashers, microwaves or small refrigerators, the inclusion of a range hood can block not only the great outdoors, but interior views as well. But there is a way to cook and have your view, too. “If you want to have a cooktop, you can have a downvent in an island so you don’t need the hood,” says Johnson.

[15. Customize Your island to fit your needs.]

“You don’t have to go with the standards,” says Roy. “For a tall client,

I might put in a 39-inch-high work surface instead of the usual 36 inches.”

If you frequently entertain or have more than one serious cook in the family, an island can allow more people to work at the same time. “When clients entertain a lot, it’s nice to create one work area for major cooking and the other one for prepping food,” says Johnson. “That really gives you room for two people to work together—or even more, if you ever hire caterers.”