Kitchen Islands Have Become Continents

There is a certain logic to the design when it acts as a separator.

Kitchen Island Cube House
A kitchen island in the Cube house in Brooklyn by Palette Architecture.

Emily Gilbert

Almost exactly four years ago, I asked if the kitchen island was finally going away. At the time, I noted kitchen islands had become so big they were now continents and there were archipelagos of multiple islands. More recently, in a discussion about design lessons from the pandemic, I suggested perhaps everybody doing their work and preparing food on the kitchen island wasn't such a good idea and that a separate kitchen made sense in a place where you want to be able to clean surfaces easily and ventilate properly.

However, once again, I am clearly not in tune with the design trends of the day, at least according to the submissions at V2com Newswire. The kitchen island shown above in the Cube House in Brooklyn by Palette Architecture doesn't even fit in the photo. With photos of so many gorgeous open kitchens with giant islands available, it raised the question again: Where did this trend come from and why are we still doing this?

A plan of Frank Lloyd Wright's Cooperative Usonian House in Detroit
Frank Lloyd Wright's Cooperative Usonian House in Detroit, Michigan.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Two key aspects of sustainability are efficiency and sufficiency—do these kitchens offer either?

Many North American kitchen historians credit—or blame, as the case may be—American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who started designing open kitchens in the 1930s. In his 1954 book "The Natural House," he wrote:

"I believe in having a kitchen featured as the work space in the Usonian house and a becoming part of the living room—a welcome feature. Back in farm days there was but one big living room, a stove in it, and Ma was there cooking—looking after the children and talking to Pa—dogs and gas and tobacco smoke too—all gemütlich if all was orderly, but it seldom was; and the children were there playing around. It created a certain atmosphere of domestic nature which had charm and which is not, I think, a good thing to lose altogether. Consequently, in this Usonian plan the kitchen was called a 'workspace' and identified largely with the living room."
working class kitchen

"Light, Air and Openness"

Seriously, he thinks this is what people want? This is why in Europe, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was designing small, efficient, separate kitchens so you didn't have Pa, the pipe, and the newspaper all over the kitchen table. This is what people were trying to get away from.

Julia Child at work
Julia Child behind her kitchen island on set of her show.

Julia Child Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Others say American cook and TV personality Julia Child had a lot to do with the popularity of the island, which really is necessary on cooking shows so that the cook can look at the audience and the helpers can hide behind it. Marlen Komar wrote for The Kitchn, "Watching Julia add her sticks of butter while standing at her island on TV changed people’s perceptions of the counter space into a spot where you could hone your culinary skills, have fun experimenting with new recipes, and wow your guests with fancy appetizers."

Louis-Hémon House/ Issa Design
The Louis-Hémon House by Issadesign in Montreal, Canada.

David Boyer

In all of the stunning pro photos, the kitchens are spotless. You do not see the pots and pans and kids doing homework in the Louis-Hémon House by Issadesign. You do not see people cooking and there are no sticks of butter.

Kitchen, La Papillon Residence, Luc Plante Architecture +Design
The La Papillon Residence by Luc Plante Architecture +Design in St-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada.

Raphael Thibodeau

As seen in La Papillon Residence by Luc Plante architecture + design, there is usually a dining area right next to the island which appears to seat fewer people. When it is all open space, you wonder where people actually eat. It does seem like unnecessary duplication and a lot of chairs.

kitchen is busy
How one family from the study spends its afternoons: In the kitchen and in front of the TV.

J. Arnold

So where do people actually eat when they have both spaces? This famous drawing from a study, "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century," tracked a family's use of their home and found that everyone hangs out in the kitchen. It also found this didn't make the occupants particularly happy:

"Parents’ comments on these spaces reflect a tension between culturally situated notions of the tidy home and the demands of daily life... Empty sinks are rare, as are spotless and immaculately organized kitchens. All of this, of course, is a source of anxiety. Images of the tidy home are intricately linked to notions of middle-class success as well as family happiness, and unwashed dishes in and around the sink are not congruent with these images."
Cube House kitchen
The kitchen in the Cube House.

Palette Architecture

Wright didn't do islands. And the kitchen with all the red dots is a big, wide-open U-shaped kitchen. What is most interesting about all these modern islands is they act as separators, keeping the plan and the views open but the people who are not actually cooking out of the way. The kitchens themselves are not that big and are efficient galley designs, which were pretty much invented by Schütte-Lihotzky with her Frankfurt kitchen.

Frankfurt Kitchen
Frankfurt Kitchen plan.

University of Applied Arts Vienna

So for years on Treehugger, I have been complaining we should be learning from Schütte-Lihotzky and building separate kitchens so people could prepare dinner without interruption, and not have Pa and the kids all over the table. In a sense, that is what these long, wide islands are doing: keeping everyone out of the cooking side. They are letting designers lay out the kitchen in what has been proven to be the most efficient manner; that is what you see in everything from restaurants to submarines.

They are Frankfurt kitchens with a wide long counter instead of a wall. Perhaps I have been too critical of them.