Kitchen islands: heart of the home or mess magnet?

They are the ultimate status symbol for the Irish home, but are islands necessary?

Time once was that Nespresso machines, NutriBullets and spiralizers were the only status symbols that a kitchen needed. But recently, the ultimate status symbol for the Irish home has gone supersized. Kitchen islands – we’re talking a massive, statement showstopper – are now de rigueur, whether you live in a smallish apartment or a more spacious, expansive home.

Status symbol aside, it’s easy to see the appeal. The kitchen has become the hub of the house, accommodating the whole family and not just the poor sod who is prepping dinner. And for the dining-kitchen-living space, the island has its many uses. Time once was that the island doubled as an extra worktop counter, but now they’ve been put on multiple duty as a breakfast bar, a storage lifesaver, the place to put the washing up or a homework desk. In some cases, they’re simply somewhere to show off the toys (Magimix/Le Creuset kettle/what have you).

The kitchen is the one room that can add serious value to a house – experts say it can boost property value by 4-7 per cent – and so it stands to reason that a modish kitchen island seems like a wise, if somewhat extravagant, investment.

Whether the kitchen island will eventually become a naff and cliché design feature, destined to go the way of the conservatory, it’s too soon to tell. But for now, keeping the design clean and neutral appears to be money well spent.


Great disadvantage

The reality, of course, is that the kitchen island rarely lives up to its promise. Few people actually sit at a kitchen island for a start, especially if there’s a perfectly fine dining table right next to it. Have you ever tried to eat comfortably at a kitchen island?

The other great disadvantage of the kitchen island in the middle of a huge open living space is that it’s impossible to cook in peace. Everyone gets to see what’s going on in the kitchen, whether it’s a steak dropped on the floor, a broken glass or a pot boiling over. There are those types who enjoy cooking while face to face with their dinner party guests, but if you want to maintain the illusion that you’re some sort of calm domestic deity, a kitchen island is not for you.

The truth of it is that a kitchen island rarely stays looking like a stunning showcase piece for long. Ultimately, it starts to become the graveyard for the utility bills, the bin bag labels and the junk mail. It becomes a really, really big space to leave the phone charging. All those extra amenities that people feel they need to build into their kitchen island – a wine cooler, a second freezer, another sink – are often surplus to requirements. Let’s be honest: sometimes the kitchen island is just for show. In one friend’s house, it’s where the cat sleeps.

If the kitchen is fewer than 13ft wide, an island may well be an unnecessary spend

Still, from a design perspective, oversized islands aren’t entirely without use. They help to box off areas, creating a divide and focal point in those too-huge rooms. Yet dream too big, and you’ll end up with an oversized island making your nice-sized kitchen feel cramped. It’s not stopping many Irish homeowners, who are hell-bent on a trendy kitchen and will squeeze in an island in if they can at all.

A word of warning: nothing quite obstructs workflow – that easy glide between fridge, sink and cooker – like an island that takes up too much space. And in time, nothing will annoy you more than having to manoeuvre around this hulking great piece of kitchen kit every single day.

Unnecessary spend

The general rule of kitchen island design, apparently, is that you will need at least 42 to 48 inches (106.68 cm to 121.92 cm) of open space around your island. Experts also note that if the kitchen is fewer than 13ft wide, an island may well be an unnecessary spend (get a smaller butcher block station instead). Too small a kitchen island, of course, defeats the purpose.

Weighed up the pros and cons and happy to proceed with a new kitchen island? The big trend in Irish kitchens is colour. Where a kitchen is often made up of wood tones or clean white units, a bright kitchen island is great for providing personality and warmth (and saves homeowners from having to redo all the cabinets).

Yet for all the style possibilities, islanders can ignore the basic rules of functionality at their peril. The best countertop materials are natural stone, ceramic tile, wood, concrete or even plastic laminate. If cost is a concern, plastic laminate is a wily choice, while granite is pricier, but popular for a utilitarian, high-traffic workspace.

Quartz looks gorgeous, but can be porous and stains easily, while a wood surface needs to be treated sufficiently to avoid water or heat damage. Good pendant lighting over an island ensures that no fingertips go awry during food chopping, and if your new island has a hob unit, a hood is essential to spirit away the various smells of cooking.