Does Every Kitchen Need an Island?

Sharon L Sherman, Thyme & Place Design, kitchen designer nj, bathroom designer nj

Why are kitchens with islands so popular?

From classic TV shows to movies and magazines, the kitchen island has long been a glorified feature of family life. The idea of a long uninterrupted piece of countertop with storage below and the family all standing around enjoying food and fun remains an idealized image of the American kitchen.

Honestly, I love islands and have a 42” X 98” island in my own kitchen. We do love it. I can do prep work and talk to my husband while he sits across from me. The countertop area is great for entertaining. I must confess that with the configuration of my kitchen, I do walk around it a bit.

Which brings into focus the key components of an island that you will love for the life of your kitchen. Once again, proper planning makes all the difference. Here are several key considerations when planning your island.

Kitchen Islands have become multi-functional spaces

Today’s lifestyle is so different from the way we lived even just 10 years ago. Bigger is not necessarily better. In today’s new normal the kitchen has taken on an expanded role. Families are preparing more meals at home. Even takeout is often reheated to sanitize it. Our food is all being carefully sorted and washed before anything is put away. As you buy in bulk, you need more room to breakdown larger packaging.

The kitchen is also serving as one of the key home office work spaces, even if it’s just one of your work-from-home family members simply looking for a little change of scenery. When the kitchen table becomes a work center, the countertops are serving as a back up eating area.

What happens at the island stays at the island.

When I design, I think beyond the obvious uses of a kitchen island. I want to derive their full value by incorporating microwaves and warming drawers as well as sinks, dishwashers and small appliance storage if Sharon L Sherman, Thyme & Place Design, Kitchen Designer NJ, Bathroom Designer NJ, island with seating possible. Now the kitchen island also serves as an extended prep and reheat station so equipment and containers associated with these tasks are stored right where they are used. 

I get requests for casual seating at the island all the time. Design your kitchen island so you can comfortably sit with your laptop and a cup of coffee to catch up on social media, or search for tonight’s dinner ideas. I start my day by going through emails in the morning sitting at the island with my morning coffee.

Including a secondary sink in the island is also an important consideration. Second sinks come in handy, especially for washing and preparing vegetables. With so many more people eating organic or fresh from the farm, you need a convenient spot to clean that harvest!

How much space do you need for an island?

Smart island design starts with making sure there is enough room. I have been in too many kitchens where there is not enough space between the counters (40” is minimum).Those spaces where you can barely open the dishwasher or oven doors. Plus, you need space to stand comfortably at these appliances. I shared more on this in my blog  Secrets of the Kitchen Triangle. 

Next up: getting power to the island. Strategically placed electric outlets will make a big difference in your use and enjoyment of your island. You don’t want to string appliance power cords across the kitchen. You must develop an electrical layout for the island if you want to really make good use of the space and meet code requirements.

While you may have plenty of room, remember that islands can be too big. There are some handy, very practical rules of thumb on this. If you can’t reach the middle of the counter, you can’t clean it. If you can’t reach the middle of the counter, it is wasted space.  Important to note; if the final size of your island countertop is bigger than the material you want to use for a top, you’ll have a big, unsightly seam that can and should be avoided.

Form follows function.

Design is all about form and function. I am not a big fan of sitting at an island directly behind a cooktop or a sink. I always try to have the seating wrap around the corner to eliminate the “diner counter” feel. When there is no other option and either cooking or clean up must be on the island, I will look to offset the seating when possible. Similarly, while you can hang a decorative hood over an island, the proportions of the kitchen must be considered. I think ventilation is a particularly important item. While some designers will forego a hood, I do not. Downdraft systems which minimize smoke and odors are also great options for island installations.

What’s the best type of lighting for an island?

Most people like some type of decorative lighting over an island. But be careful: if you have an amazing custom wood hood with an antique wood beam mantle that is the centerpiece of the kitchen, you might not want the view of that hood obstructed by a hanging light fixture. (sneak peek coming soon!) Whatever your ceiling configuration, I generally specify a combination of recessed lights with a decorative light fixture. Here we used a clear shaded light fixture over the island so it did not compete with the table light or the hood.

One color or two.

Kitchen island with microwave drawer. Thyme & Place Design, Sharon L Sherman

Microwave drawer built into the island

Color schemes and material selection represent a terrific opportunity to put a little “wow” in your kitchen design that reflects your taste and style. Many homeowners fall into the over matching trap, missing the chance to create a distinctive look for their island. Using contrasting colors for the island is an extremely popular option right now.  Blues and greys are still big in the kitchen world. In addition, more natural wood finishes are finding their way into the color palette.

The stool rule.

I use the 24” per seat rule (that’s the length of counter space required for each stool). If you have large stools, then you need more space. Swivel stools also need a bit more space for your knees to pass the next stool. Once again, measuring, planning and mapping out your preferences helps avoid pitfalls here. It’s worth noting that counter stools are for kitchen counter height and bar stools for bar height. More than once I’ve run into clients who purchase stools which are too high for the counter and ultimately uncomfortable to sit in.

A few favorite countertops.

I have designed beautiful kitchen islands with a variety of surface materials: stone island tops, quartz island tops, wood island tops and more. When considering any material for your island top, you need to understand the practical realities of the material you are selecting, especially the upkeep. There are always tradeoffs to the options you’re considering. For example, there are some types of wood materials that make great counters and some that do not. Bakers will always want a white marble slab somewhere. It’s worth noting that while I like eating on a wood top, I have a limestone top on my island. Lately, quartz is still trending but trends come and go. There is also a resurgence in the use of other organic materials like natural stone and quartzites.

Using a distinctive piece of furniture for an island.

We had a client who had an old desk he wanted to include in the kitchen. The desk was perfect to have as a small centerpiece where he could sit and have a quick bite to eat since there was no table in the kitchen and not enough room for a traditional island. In general, I would prefer to design cabinetry which replicates the antique piece with the modern conveniences in storage and function and use the real antiques as a furniture statement piece.

As you can see, a kitchen island offers many ways to enhance the look, function, workflow and enjoyment of your kitchen. Explore the options, develop a good game plan and you’ll find your kitchen island is a much loved focal point of your kitchen.


Sharon L Sherman ASID CID CKD is a designer and Reiki Master located in New Jersey. Her award-winning designs and editorial comments have been featured in Woman’s Day, Country Decorating, Design NJ, Family Circle, 201 Magazine, The Best of Bergen, Savvy Living, The Record, The Star Ledger, Bergen Magazine and Aspire as well as several books. Her Blog “Tips for the Trade” has appeared in digital form on She has also appeared on HGTV’s My Big Amazing Renovation and episodes of House Smarts with Lou Manfredini.







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Sharon sherman

My award-winning designs haven been featured in multiple magazines, industry publications and on television. That’s nice affirmation, to be sure.

But perhaps the greatest accolade I’ve received is the repeat engagements with so many clients, project after project, year after year.

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