Kitchen islands are a relatively recent invention. They first appeared in 1950s USA as a way of filling up newly expanded kitchen spaces. The introduction of breakfast bars, probably inspired by neighbourhood diners, turned what was a cross between a range and a working table into a multi-function piece of furniture that is the star of the kitchen. Cooking counters in diners proved the value of eating near a cooking zone as pre-served plates could be handed across the worktop for instant consumption. This allowed the island socialize the domestic kitchen by bringing eating into the heart of the culinary area. The arrival of efficient air ventilation systems on the market conveniently coincided making it possible to take the cooking hobs away from the chimney breast.
Ergonomics was the next development. Following Henry Ford’s application of productivity theory, kitchen design eventually benefited from time and motion studies. Surprisingly few serious attempts had been made to apply ergonomics to the kitchen by the time I started designing central Islands, and few acknowledged the social role of the kitchen.
Cindy's diner, 1954, Kansas City
Cindy’s diner, restored to it’s 1954 original, Kansas City.
Image courtesy of Kansas Historical Foundation
My understanding of the role the island plays in lifting kitchen design to an art includes two other constituents. The Alexander Technique, a movement therapy taught in drama and music schools is based on a system of moving with a sense of economy to support the back and the body’s posture. This led me to a concept I call ‘dedicated work surfaces’ where a culinary activity is optimized through calculating the space required to accommodate it without being overly generous, with the appropriate counter height and surface material then selected. A balance needs to found, giving the hands space to work without involving unnecessary foot movement. Too much space given to one kitchen activity reduces the room available for another.
My second discovery was the importance of peripheral vision. Our eyes cause our bodies to react to sharp edges and corners by becoming defensive, an alert signal going off in the brain sending low level flight and fight response signals. I developed ‘soft geometry’, curved shapes which form natural routes between furniture and architectural features to make islands easy to negotiate, essential as islands are by their nature in the middle of a room.
NO MAN CAN LIVE ON AN ISLAND
Islands don’t exist on their own. In a kitchen interior, arrangements need to be made between the central island and the doors, windows, walls, fridges, cupboards and tables. The first thing to do is establish the ‘sweet spot’ or ‘driving position’, the safest and most strategic position for the cook. Once that is located, with space left behind to protect the cook’s back (a well-established psychological need), one can assess the amount of space in front for an island, ideally with room behind for a sink cabinet. Storage, best located in the zone between eyes and knees, is the third phase of the design.
Kitchen Island designed for clients in Memphis 2000
ALLOCATION OF WORK SPACE
The placement of prepping takes priority and is generally best sited on a corner to allow for a two-directional approach. The cooktop should be kept in the centre, with a back-up work surface either to the right or in front. This can be a lower level surface at table height for use by children or as a pastry roll out area. The longest work surface is the breakfast bar, we rename more accurately the food bar. It’s for eating, serving and all purpose food display set highest of all so that it can’t be used as a prep surface. Its users can then see what’s going on whether they sit on bar stools or perch and no one gets their hair singed as they are above the level of hot pans on the stove!
Varying the mass of the island into a sequence of connected shapes creates sculptural harmony. Some parts might even be see-through so that light can travel across the floor, from windows to the corridor to between the island and wall counters. Installing a lighting gantry that echoes the outline shape of the island helps prevent it looking isolated or like an overgrown table. Include bars or hooks for small tools as this allows the cook sight and reach of his/her tools. Lights enhance the rack’s function and visual appeal. Finally, make sure the scale is right. Small furniture in big rooms looks lost, big islands in small rooms mean you create an obstacle like something from Maurice Sendak’s Scary Monsters… After that it’s all up to the cook.
* More text on central islands can be found in a section at the back of my book Kitchen Culture