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Jo's Design Notebook: Kitchen Islands


Kitchen islands offer us a place to prep, serve, and gather, and perhaps most loved of all, a place to linger long after the meal is over.

story by joanna gaines
photography by lisa petrole

My first kitchen island wasn’t an island at all. It was a wooden cart that I’d wheel into the tiny kitchen of our first home whenever Chip and I had people over. I remember that cart served a few purposes around our home, and on nights when we hosted, I’d clear it of the picture frames and books that normally sat on top and roll it from its place in the living room to the center of the kitchen. It then became the place for prep— keeping all of my ingredients in sight and within reach.

When our guests would arrive, I was always amazed by how quickly that little cart would draw everyone into the kitchen, somehow making that tiny space feel larger than life. The cart itself wasn’t much to lean against, but no one seemed to mind once I swapped all evidence of prep with an appetizer or two and drinks for the taking. I started to see how that little cart became the anchor to those evenings—giving us a place to begin and then return to after dinner as we washed dishes and stretched the night as long as we could.

It’s now many years later, and even though a real island anchors my kitchen these days, I have carried with me the lessons that makeshift cart taught me. That beyond the extra function an island (or cart, or whatever) brings to a kitchen, it’s always the life that resounds around it that makes it the heart of the home. And that’s why, when I’m designing a kitchen for a client, I often begin with the island, thinking through size, function, and form. Even if I plan for an island to be a standout piece that has a slightly different style than the rest of the room, knowing how it needs to serve the client sets the tone.

If you happen to be starting a kitchen from scratch or simply looking to make a few updates, or maybe you have no space for an island today but are open to a creative substitute, I’ve learned that spending time thinking through how you want your kitchen to function and serve your lifestyle is how you begin to add thought and intention to this well-loved space. And whether it ends up that you have a great big island or a sturdy makeshift cart, how you choose to embrace this space is what makes it one that you can turn to all day long and for as long as the night might last. Here, I’ve pulled together a few islands I’ve designed to showcase the different ways they bring life to the kitchen.

Plan Your Island

flow

When thinking about how you will use the island day-to-day, keep the triangle rule in mind. Kitchen workflow is maximized when the sink, refrigerator, and range are three points on a triangle. Many times, putting a sink in the island makes this possible.

The range is the showstopper in this kitchen, and splitting the island allowed it to be the star. If space permits, a double island offers double the function. It can create a space for prep work where the sink is located, and additional space for serving. Even more, breaking up one long island helps people move around the kitchen more easily.

function

Think through how you would like to use an island. If you entertain, making space for seating will be important. Also consider how you prep food and, based on the shape of your space, if you could use this real estate as a serving area. If so, you may want to invest in an oversized countertop.

A waterfall edge extends the countertop material from the top of the island to the floor for a striking visual effect. It’s a design choice I made in order to emphasize the material and also create a dramatic impact, turning the island into a true focal point of the kitchen.

style

Allow yourself to think outside traditional definitions. If you find a piece of furniture you love, add a countertop material that transforms it into an island. Style and function can work together to create a space that’s not only easier to work in, but beautiful too.

I chose this antique island to be the centerpiece of the kitchen. Because of that, it made sense to add a marble countertop so that it could function as an island. The wood of the perimeter cabinets and shelving is a tie to the antique base. Other design elements like the exposed stone and brass light fixtures work together for a very organic, rustic feel in the space.

color

The island can be a place to bring in character. Because it’s a focal point that’s balanced by the rest of the kitchen, it can be bolder than the rest of the room.

Bold color makes this island the focal point of the room, and rounded corners enhance the soft bungalow feeling of the house. I love how well the small island works in this space, offering storage in addition to seating.

materials

Consider how much traffic your island will receive. If you will be cooking and serving, a durable and scratch-resistant material such as quartz might be the right choice. Deciding whether you want the island to be emphasized or blend in can help you focus on the right base material. Small flourishes will make the island unique and can also tie to other elements in the kitchen.

This island’s oak base with corbels is a special detail that sets it apart from the other materials in this kitchen. The brass fixtures used throughout are mirrored by the brass barstools to create a cohesive look.

Make The Island Your Own

To play up the modern elements of the kitchen, I designed this island to be asymmetrical. Open shelving gives it the necessary balance.

Once you have gone through the fundamentals of design, it’s time to think through details that help your island multitask for all your needs.

Cabinets: Using the same cabinet hardware and cabinet pulls on every cabinet in the kitchen—whether in the island or on the perimeter—creates consistency. If you lean more toward an eclectic style, perimeter cabinets can have a different color and finish than the island. Choosing open shelving or closed cabinets to hide appliances will also have an impact on the overall look of the room.

In-Island Appliances: Often putting the sink in the island opens up necessary space in perimeter cabinets for a range or other storage needs. An island sink can facilitate an easy prep station and can be especially convenient if the dishwasher is hidden in the island within easy reach. When lots of appliances are tucked into the island it makes for a more minimal style.

Comfortable Seating: Though chairs are usually chosen after the island is designed, finding the right seats should be much more than an afterthought. Comfortable seating makes the island all the more inviting, turning it into a gathering space. If your kitchen also holds a dining table with chairs, think through how the chairs will play off each other. Making sure you have enough seating, but keeping it from looking crowded in the space, will lend itself to a relaxed and welcoming feel.

Many of the islands featured were designed in Fixer Upper: Welcome Home. More of the story on each kitchen can be seen in their respective episodes on Magnolia Network.

This story was adapted for digital from the spring issue of Magnolia Journal.

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