4 award-winning tips for designing kitchen islands

This year's Design Award winners offer their advice on crafting the perfect kitchen island

October 11, 2011

Homeowners almost always want an island when the time comes to remodel their kitchens, but a poorly designed or ill-planned island can cause more problems than it solves.

“Homeowners request islands 99 percent of the time – whether or not their space allows for this configuration is another thing,” says Bonnie Trowbridge, ASID, lead designer for College City Design-Build, Lakeville, Minn.

We asked Trowbridge and some of this year’s other Professional Remodeler Design Award winners for their advice on crafting useful kitchen islands. Here are four of their best tips.

1. Aisles that are just right

All too often, islands are squeezed in to a tight kitchen or built to small for a large room. Be sure to think about how people will use the space once it’s built.

“Thirty-six inches is the minimum between cabinets, 42 inches is ideal for a one-cook kitchen and 48 inches is optimal for a kitchen with more than one cook,” says Colleen Shaut, senior designer at Case Design/Remodeling, Bethesda, Md.

Too much space can be a problem, too. Homeowners don’t want to be walking 5 or 6 feet between the counter and the island.

2. Creative shapes and finishes

Take advantage of space to make a design statement.

“Try to think outside the box – literally,” Shaut says. “Islands can take any shape and become a nice focal point if they are well thought out.”

Using alternative countertop materials or cabinet finishes can create an eye-catching distinction, especially in a large kitchen, says Leslie Lee, a designer at Normandy Builders, Hinsdale, Ill.

Other details, such as paneled backs and sides or furniture wraps can also create a nice look, Trowbridge says.

3. Don’t forget seating

A common mistake when designing islands is not taking into account if the homeowners will want to sit at the island, says Leslie Lawrence, CKD, of Normandy Builders, Hinsdale, Ill.

She recommends knee clearance of 18 inches for a 30-inch tall island, 15 inches for a 36-inch island and 12 inches for a 42-inch island. In addition, 24 inches between stools allows enough elbow room.

“Without appropriate clearance, someone sitting at the island has to put his or her knees to the side,” she says. “One will be less likely to pull up a chair at an island if it doesn’t feel comfortable.”

4. Be smart about layout

An island needs to be designed for the way people use it.

“If there is a new island installed without a sink, oven, cook top or even stools, what is the motivation for a cook to use that island?” Lawrence says. “Without some sort of need to go to the island, it is less likely to be used, thus decreasing the functionality of the kitchen.”

If placing a sink in the island, Lee says to make sure dishwasher and trash are located nearby. She also recommends creating a raising area for seating so any mess created in the sink area doesn’t bother seated guests.

Outlets are an often-overlooked element on a kitchen island, Shaut says.

“Having to settle for an outlet in the countertop or in the wrong spot because it wasn’t thought through is a problem,” she says.

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