Kitchen Island Design Ideas that Add Form and Function

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The design of a kitchen isn’t just about picking out cabinets and hardware. A well thought out kitchen is equal parts aesthetics and function. Planning your kitchen island design is an important part of the process whether you are remodeling or starting from scratch. This post will help you make decisions and design the best possible island for your kitchen that is both beautiful and functional!

classic white kitchen with island, marble countertops, unlacquered brass hardware

What is a Kitchen Island?

It’s exactly what it sounds like! A kitchen island is a freestanding cabinet and countertop that is typically in the center of a kitchen. Due to its location within the design of a kitchen it becomes the focal point for the space.

An island provides additional counter and storage space. If you have room for seating, it also becomes a place where family and friends gather socially as well.

classic white kitchen with island, marble countertops, unlacquered brass hardware

Large open spaces can accommodate more island features and layout options, but there are plenty of ways you can design a functional kitchen island for a small space as well!

Determining the Right Dimensions

Having an island should enhance the look and function of your kitchen, not hinder it. You need enough space to walk freely around all sides and easily access cabinets and appliances – for proper flow and safety reasons as well.

The minimum clearance needed to be compliant with code is 36″ but 42″- 48″ is a common industry standard for designing kitchens. If you have counter space with seating you will need more space so the stools don’t block the flow of traffic.

white kitchen with hardwood floors, rattan counter stools, kitchen island design that allows plenty of space on all sides, high end kitchen, designer kitchen details

There are several popular kitchen layouts – galley, L-shaped, and U-shaped to name a few. While they may look a little different they all have the same accessibility to the three main workstations. You’ve probably seen diagrams with the range, sink, and refrigerator at the points of a triangle.

When designing a kitchen with an island, the same theory can be used. However, think about how you will be working in your kitchen to determine what your needs are and this will help you bring your kitchen island design to life!

Kitchen Island Heights

A counter height island ranges between 35-37 inches and things like countertop thickness and flooring can affect the exact measurements. Oftentimes the cabinets go in first, but in open floor plans with the same flooring throughout, sometimes contractors will just install all the flooring first so they don’t have to work around the cabinets.

kitchen island with legs and seating, no sink, designer kitchen style, honed marble countertops

Back in the 90s a split height island was all the rage. But the trend seems to have moved toward a consistent counter height throughout a kitchen. This is especially important in a smaller kitchen where a higher counter may make the space feel closed off.

Most high-end or designer kitchens have uniform counter heights but when it comes to the cabinets and countertop materials, sometimes they like to mix things up.

Counter stools vs. Barstools

The type of stool you need depends on the height of your countertops. Like the name says a counter stool is best for a counter height island and usually comes in 24″-26″ from seat to floor.

A bar stool is meant for split-height or bar counters and you’ll find they typically measure 35″-39″ from seat to floor.

close up of kitchen island with seating, rattan counter stools under island overhang

If you have an open concept home or your dining space is adjacent and visible, check my post to see how to coordinate your seating!

Kitchen Island Designs with Seating

Speaking of seating, one of our favorite gathering spots is at our kitchen island. It is where the kids have breakfast before school and where we socialize with friends. If you have the space, I highly recommend incorporating seating in your kitchen island design.

Countertop Overhang

Overhang is the countertop that sticks out over the base (cabinets) of the island. You need enough room to be able to sit comfortably so your knees don’t touch the cabinets below. I recommend at least 14″ for comfortable seating.

How much of an overhang you decide on will determine whether you will also need support, typically legs or corbels. Countertop materials are heavy and if you extend the overhang too far you risk it cracking if there is nothing to support the weight.

kitchen island design with legs to support overhang, space for seating

In general, you may need support on anything over 10-12 inches but you’ll need to communicate with your fabricator once you decide on a material to see what needs to be done.

There are several ways to support a countertop overhang. For a traditional look you can have corbels installed or go with a frame and legs. Corbels are ornate and decorative and don’t always fit a more modern or transitional design style.

I generally prefer the look of legs over corbels. It’s easy to find ones that match the style of your home and they make your island look a little larger. Turned legs are more ornate and traditional. Square legs are the most up to date style that you can easily customize by adding trim.

white marble island countertop overhang supported with legs

Hidden supports are flat steel plates that are secured to the island base before the counters are installed. They eliminate the need for corbels and legs and provide a clean and modern look. A bonus is the unobstructed extra leg room.

Cabinet Base Options

Kitchen islands are created with an arrangement of base cabinets. Create the perfect mix of cabinets with doors or drawers to suite your needs. If you are doing a fully custom island, your designer will work with you and the cabinet maker to come up with the perfect stylish and functional layout.

To keep my countertops clutter free, I store small appliances in the bottom of my island cabinets. They are out of the way but easily accessible when needed.

The drawers in the island are where we keep utensils and cutlery. We made this organizational decision because we frequently eat at the island and it’s close to the sink and dishwasher making unloading a breeze.

kitchen island design with drawers, custom drawer organizers for utensils and cutlery

I’ve written about the modern look of a kitchen with a microwave drawer and the island is a very popular place to have one installed! Just be sure it is located in a place that is convenient for use. You don’t want to have to walk in circles around the island to get to it.

A creative way to expand your storage space is to have cabinets installed on the back side of your island. It’s the perfect spot for things you don’t use often. The cabinets most often installed here are actually 30″ upper cabinets that will require an additional base in order to bring them up to the proper height. This is a fantastic idea to store cookbooks or other decor at the end of an island as well!

person opening cabinets installed under kitchen island countertop overhang, extra kitchen storage

Since the backs or sides of your kitchen island cabinets are exposed, you’ll need to have some sort of side panel to cover that area. Cabinet manufacturers will have options for you and depending on the look you want. I have decorative panels that look like the rest of the cabinetry so they blend in seamlessly.

underside of kitchen island showing cabinets, overhang frame and legs, decorative side panel

Kitchen Islands with Sinks

Should you have a sink installed in your island? Well, that depends on the style and your plan for functionality. If that will be a designated food prep area then it might be a good idea to have a sink; especially if the wall behind it has the stove. You can wash your food and hands as need during the cooking process.

90s kitchen with sink in island

Having a sink in your island can be convenient, but there are some drawbacks. The sink area tends to get a little messy being the place where dirty dishes tend to accumulate. If you are hosting a party with food and guests are seated at the island, dirty dishes create an unattractive scene.

As for decorating your kitchen island, a sink and everything that goes with it can be distracting. The faucet, disposal switch and any other gadgets may make it difficult to style your pretty decor.

kitchen after remodel where island sink was removed

Adding an island to an existing kitchen can present some issues if your design includes a sink. You will need plumbing and electrical access and sometimes that means tearing up the floor. This will increase the cost of the project and possibly lead to other issues so make sure you factor that into the budget.

There are code requirements when it comes to plumbing and electrical so you’ll probably need to have the outlets on the side of the island. You can use decorative outlet covers, paint them, or use other methods to hide them like I did.

view underneath kitchen island showing hidden electrical outlet

Choosing a Countertop

Have you visited a stone fabricator or supplier? It can be an overwhelming process to choose the right one. After all, they are not cheap so you’ll be living with it for years to come.

Each type of stone has pros and cons so you just have to do the research to see what best works for your home. Style, durability, and maintenance should all be considered. I had my heart set on marble and no one could convince me otherwise. Read my post for details on how the marble has stood up against my family of five!

Stefana Silber decorating her kitchen island and demonstrating how much clearance there should be between island and counters

The slabs are massive but if your island is extra long the they will have to be pieced together and you’ll end up with seams. Cutouts make the stone slabs susceptible to breaking during transport so that is a common place for seams.

Consider this when dreaming up those kitchen island ideas! If you choose a countertop that has a small or speckled pattern the seams may not be as noticeable. However if you have bold veining or lots of contrast it may be difficult to match the slab pattern at the seams.

The work around for this dilemma is a process called book matching. A quarry sends huge blocks of stone to a processing plant where they will be cut into slabs and a surface treatment applied (polished, honed, leathered, etc,). In order to have the natural patterns of the stone align, the plant will have the slabs numbered in order and alternate which side of the slab surface gets treated. This butterfly affect is the best way to ensure the smooth transition between seams.

Kitchen by Rachel Parcell demonstrating butterfly stone, book matching
Source: Rachel Parcell

Fully Custom vs. Budget-Friendly

There is no right or wrong here. This is a personal choice as everyone has different budget considerations.

If you are not doing a fully custom kitchen island you have to pick from pre-fabricated base cabinets to build out the structure. This will likely require the use of fillers in order the get the exact measurements. But don’t worry, they come in the same color as your cabinets so they aren’t too noticeable.

A fully custom kitchen island is just that. Every detail is thoughtfully designed by professionals that will leave no stone unturned to get every detail just right.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it cheaper to buy or build a kitchen island?

If you are going to build a kitchen island yourself, you need to have some decent DIY skills. The amount of measuring and leveling needs to be precise and requires some experience with woodworking. However, anytime you do something yourself it is likely less expensive than paying a professional. The question should be are you willing and able to put in the time and effort to get the job done right?

What is the best layout for a kitchen island?

This depends entirely on your personal tastes and the amount of space you have to work with. Work on designing an island with function in mind then think about the design aspect of it. As far as shape goes – square is pretty modern, rectangle is traditional, and L-shaped is great for extra seating.

If you have an endless budget and square footage, consider adding a double island to your kitchen. Think of the amazing entertaining opportunities!

What is the best lighting for a kitchen island?

Since the island is the focal point of a kitchen, why not make a statement with the lighting? Check out my post about kitchen lighting designs for inspiration!

Studio McGee Kitchen
Source: Studio McGee

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