Is the Kitchen Island Finally Going Away?

Wood top kitchen island with a bowl of apples on top, and a kitchen counter in the background

 

Andreas von Einsiedel / Getty Images

UPDATE: There have been a lot of negative responses to this post in comments. I was going to respond by explaining myself in greater detail but I have covered this before previously in a post Why do kitchens look the way they do? and a slideshow of my lecture to my students: Where our kitchens came from and where they are going

I used to complain that kitchen islands had become so big that they were now kitchen continents; then they even turned into archipelagos with multiple islands. The designer of one in a New American Home noted:

A double island in the kitchen offers space to cook on one side and an informal area on the other so that kids can work on schoolwork while still interacting with the family and being a part of the home’s social sphere."

The Growth of Islands and the Sinking of the Kitchen Triangle


I have never liked islands, but then I am among probably the two people in North America who think open kitchens are a bad idea, probably the same two who hate islands. The other might be Michelle Slatalla of Remodelista, who writes in the Wall Street Journal under the headline Why Kitchen Islands Are Ruining America’s Kitchens:

Sadly, I know I am in the minority (for now) on this design issue. Among renovating homeowners, a built-in island is the most sought-after kitchen feature after pantry cabinets, according to a 2017 Houzz kitchen-trends survey of 2,707 people.

She notes that as houses grew, islands, popular since the 1980s, have grown along with them.

“It grew along with the megamansion movement,” said Dallas architect Bob Borson. As walls started to disappear and “open” kitchens began to bleed into living rooms, Mr. Borson’s clients started asking for islands to delineate spaces. “I am trying to remember the last time I did a kitchen that didn’t have an island—and I can’t think of one,” he said.

Evidently, the classic kitchen triangle, around since Christine Frederick in 1912, is also sinking under the weight of the kitchen island. “We used to design around the three points on a work triangle—the refrigerator, stove, and sink,” says one designer. “With an under-counter refrigerator, a cooktop, and a sink, you can place the three points in a linear path instead of a triangle. An island lets you work in a very small footprint.”

The Kitchen Table

In the end, Michelle Slatalla has a dining room table in a big open kitchen, where most people would put an island. She says it's better for the kids to do their homework and easier to work on for a lot of kitchen functions. But should those be in the kitchen at all? According to Paul Overy in his book Light, Air and Openness, open kitchens were thought to be bad exactly because these things were done in the kitchen.

Rather than the social centre of the house as it had been in the past, this was designed as a functional space where certain actions vital to the health and wellbeing of the household were performed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Small kitchen setup with a stool underneath a countertop
Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen 1926 / CC BY 2.0

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the Frankfurt kitchen to make cooking more efficient and to get women out of the kitchen where they had been trapped previously. The kitchen “was to be used quickly and efficiently to prepare meals and wash up, after which the housewife would be free to return to ... her own social, occupational or leisure pursuits."

I don't see the logic of putting the cook on display as if they are Julia Child; at least she didn't have to look at the dirty dishes after. And her own kitchen at home didn't have an island.

Reconstruction of Julia Child's kitchen
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I used to believe that the dining table should be in the kitchen, like Michelle Slatalla does (and Julia Child did). I thought it was greener and healthier, telling a now-defunct green design magazine:

Local food, fresh ingredients, the slow food movement; these are all the rage these days. A green kitchen will have big work areas and sinks for preserving, tons of storage to keep it in, but will not have a four foot wide fridge or a six burner Viking range. It will open to outdoors to vent the heat in summer, to the rest of the house to retain the heat in winter. The dining area will be integrated into it, perhaps right in the middle. A green kitchen will be like grandma's farm kitchen- big, open, the focus of the house and no energy from the appliances will be wasted in winter or kept inside in summer.

But since then I have come to believe that a separate kitchen is better. It is the most efficient and healthiest way to go, because of air quality, ventilation and temptation, and that the real multifunction space is the dining room table -- in the dining room. And that islands just get in the way of proper circulation. Christine got it right in 1912.

Do you like kitchen islands?