How the island took over our kitchens

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I was recently being shown around a new apartment in a 57th Street tower overlooking Central Park and found myself drawn, as if by sheer gravitational pull, to the enormous marble kitchen island, seemingly hewn from a single piece of creamy stone. With overengineered chrome taps craning over its massive sink and a sinister-looking hose suspended above, it looked like something you might find in the back of a Michelin-starred restaurant — or perhaps a mortuary. And it was absolutely enormous: Michelangelo could have carved another David out of it.

When islands get too big they become countries. This was a continent, the latest iteration of a kind of stubborn inflation that has become embedded in affluent neighbourhoods from London to Los Angeles: kitchen hypertrophy.

In 1926, Margarete Lihotzky designed the now famous “Frankfurt Kitchen”, a masterpiece of minimalism, a tiny galley designed with efficiency and labour-saving in mind. There’s one in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, all of about four blocks from the tower on West 57th Street. The early Modernists were obsessed with reducing the amount of space wasted on utility — a small kitchen and bathroom meant a bigger living space. A century on and everything has changed: many US kitchen islands occupy the space of an entire Frankfurt kitchen on their own.  

Kitchen islands took off in the US in the 1960s but, from around some time in the 1980s, the kitchen underwent a big bang, a hot stretch of time and space in which it slowly expanded to occupy almost the whole of the ground floor of some houses. Island boomtime coincided with the hyperinflation of US domestic interiors, the moment in which the Dallas-style ranch begat the suburban McMansion. It was an eclectic period in which country kitchen coexisted with yuppie-trad, Provençale with lofty Modernism. Kitchens, once understood as service spaces, were suddenly dragged into the limelight.

The island was intended, in part, as an informal family centre — the spot for a snatched bowl of cornflakes or a coffee — and they still can be convivial, a focus for a space, a communal and informal surface without the commitment of sitting down together for a meal. But much of their function in more upmarket homes is as a device for filling space. As the kitchen expanded into the living room and walls disappeared, those huge volumes needed filling (see also the rise of vast sofas and glass coffee and innumerable console tables).

Oddly, this most suburban of archetypes also spread to the most urban of dwellings. The 1980s lofts of SoHo had much space to fill and the island suited them fine. Since men latched on to cooking as a kind of performance (sometime in the 1990s, roughly), the island went from pine-clad farmhouse table to high-tech control station: steel-topped, machine-filled, with surgical taps, industrial toasters and top-end garbage crushers.

Other trends have disappeared (the glass block walls; the stainless steel, industrial lab-style cabinets and worktops) but the islands remain — and they’ve been getting bigger and bigger. 

These days, the more luxury dwellings I visit, the more I find that the size of the kitchen island is in direct proportion to the lack of cooking (or eating) actually done in the kitchen. The nuclear family has atomised and mealtimes happen elsewhere — on the sofa, in the bedroom, at a desk while checking emails — with everyone eating at different times. The island is a symbol, an idea of informal family life embodied in a deathly slab of marble, a funeral bier for food.  

The islands in show homes, which are then endlessly reproduced and rehashed by interior designers and architects, become tabletop galleries. Top-end, overdesigned coffee machines (all that kit for a pod?), carved wooden fruit bowls, stainless-steel orange holders and chrome citrus squeezers, vases of exotic orchids, unused wooden chopping boards with expensive Japanese knives placed nonchalantly atop and self-consciously handcrafted ceramics. 

The island itself, meanwhile, might be clad in densely grained white marble (not just the top but the whole thing), a piece of unused furniture as heavy as a car. And do people really ever sit at those stools? Lined up next to each other like at a bar designed for heavy drinking and minimal communication — surely the least family-oriented inspiration imaginable?

In reality (as opposed to show-home fantasy) the kitchen island replaces an item now long defunct: the hall table. Since the kitchen subsumed most of the living space, the island becomes the repository of things that need to be done: utility bills; pizza delivery offers; unfinished homework; kids’ drawings not quite good enough to go on the fridge; letters and lists. A spaghetti of charging cables threaded through this morning’s breakfast things. Just as the expanding space of the kitchen needs to be filled, so does the vast surface of the kitchen island.  

Sure, they can work. Who doesn’t want a huge entertaining space for that once-every-two-years party? And a bit of extra surface is useful — they allow two people to work on dinner at the same time and give an impression of conviviality. But are they worth it, really? Have you thought, perhaps, of just getting a nice table?

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

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