Planning a Kitchen Upgrade? Secrets to the Perfect Island

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Studio McGee)

The kitchen is the heart of the home, and the island is the heart of the kitchen. If you’re thinking about adding an island to your existing kitchen, or to a new one that you’re planning, read this post first. We’ve combed through hundreds of kitchen designs and come up with the most important considerations for making your island both useful and beautiful.


First, let’s talk dimensions — the practical stuff. If you’re adding an island to an existing kitchen, or planning a new one, this kitchen guide from BHG recommends leaving at least 42 inches between the island and the countertop to allow room to work. For two cooks, allow 48 inches.

(Image credit: KK Living)

If you’re searching for an antique piece to re-purpose as an island, keep in mind that the standard American countertop height is 36 inches. Depending on how tall you are, you may be comfortable working at a surface that is slightly lower or slightly higher — but this also means that your island will be a different height than the rest of your kitchen. (In the past, people outfitted kitchens with work surfaces of all different heights, so it is certainly possible to work this way.)


One thing to consider when laying out your kitchen is the so-called work triangle. The notion of the work triangle is that, in order to minimize back and forth movement, the sink, refrigerator, and primary cooking surface should be placed in a triangle, with each individual leg measuring between between four and nine feet and the whole triangle no more than 26 feet. Depending on the layout of your kitchen this may point you to a ‘working’ island — one that includes a sink or cooktop.

The trend in kitchens these days is towards kitchens that are open to the main living areas of the house. Often this results in an island (like the ones in a lot of these photos) that forms the boundary between the kitchen and the rest of the space. Placing the sink or cooktop in the island, facing the living room, means that the cook can see and interact with people in other parts of the home while working.

Now for the fun part! Of course, this isn’t the limit of your design considerations, but if you’re planning an island these are three very helpful questions to ask.

(Image credit: Matchbook Mag)
(Image credit: House & Home)

Open vs. Closed

If you think of your kitchen island as more of a showpiece, or if you cook a great deal and want easy access to your stuff, an open island, with shelves to display beautiful pots and pans, is a good option. (This is also a look that’s popular in kitchens with a more industrial style, since it imitates the storage seen in commercial kitchens.) If you’ve already got a lot of open shelving in your kitchen, or you’re looking to add more storage to your space, put some doors on that thing. (Also, and this should probably go without saying, an open island is not a great choice if you have young kids.)

(Image credit: Koekkenskaberne)

Seating vs. No Seating

The question of whether or not you want to include seating at your island has a lot to do with how you plan on using your kitchen. Do you, or anyone else, regularly eat in your kitchen, or do you prefer to eat elsewhere? How do you like to entertain? If you like to have larger parties and envision the island as a place where people will gather informally, having seating may actually get in the way, since most people at larger events prefer to remain standing. If, on the other hand, you prefer to invite smaller groups, island seating can serve as a spot for people to sit and chat with the host while they’re working. This is also a good spot for informal family dining, or even for kids to do homework.

BHG recommends leaving 28 – 30 inches of countertop per seat. If there is a walkway behind the chairs, you’ll need to leave 44 – 60 inches (measured from the edge of the countertop) to allow comfortable passage. At a 36″ height, you’ll need to leave 15 inches of knee space under the counter. If you decide to drop your seating counter to 30″ (the height of a standard table), allow 18 inches of knee space.

(Image credit: Elizabeth Roberts)

Matching vs. Contrasting

One exciting thing about adding an island is that it gives you the opportunity to add a little contrast into your kitchen. If you’ve been feeling like your kitchen needs a little something, embrace the contrast! A wood island, for example, can really warm up a kitchen with white cabinets. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more streamlined look, or your kitchen is open to the rest of your home and you want it to make a single, uniform statement, then stick with matching your island to the rest of your cabinets.