How the Kitchen Island Became a Design Staple Still Popular Today
Better Homes & Gardens first featured the idea of a kitchen island in 1944, in a story called “Tomorrow, You Can Live Like This.” It was part of a series of big ideas dreamed up by architects imagining the post-war building boom to come, and the kitchen was ripe for updates. New technology upgraded everything from appliances to windows, and air conditioning promised to take care of pesky odors. But the biggest change was societal.
The need for live-in housekeepers dropped as the middle class grew. Homeowners (mainly women) prepared meals for both the everyday and special events, driving the desire for informality, convenience, and efficiency. Not wanting to spend hours sequestered from families and guests, homeowners’ changing lifestyles caused a shift in architecture. Enter: Open concept living.
Better Homes & Gardens Kitchen island featured in the 1944 issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.
Open Floor Plans and the First Kitchen Island
Frank Lloyd Wright is generally credited with the first design that integrated a kitchen with the rest of a home’s living spaces. The 1938 Minneapolis home he created for Nancy and Malcolm Willey, a young couple who frequently entertained, features a glass partition between the living and dining space and the kitchen, which he renamed the “workspace.” The glass was meant to help Nancy stay connected with her guests while preparing food and drinks.
Although the exposed kitchen was said to have horrified Nancy’s mother, the idea found its way into the new homes rapidly popping up in the ’40s and ’50s. And today it seems no renovation is complete until a homeowner asks their contractor, “Can that wall come down?”
The star of these open plans is often the island, the sophisticated cousin to the hulking work tables in large, worker-filled kitchens of yore. Part prep space and storage necessity, part room divider and gathering hub, the island has become an all-purpose workhorse, built to suit the specific needs of a home. Consider what goes missing when a wall comes down: cabinetry, counter space, and nooks for tables and chairs. A well-considered island can house them all.
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Our first island, shown in that 1944 issue, includes a sink and raised “splash back” to hide mealtime disorder from diners at the table beyond. There’s even storage built into the back so the toaster and kettle can slide from shelf to table at breakfast time.
By 1957, we’d worked out a few kinks. Meet “the living kitchen,” below. It was touted as a place “where friends gather for a snack and teenagers entertain a crowd for burger parties at the new island.” And the plan, laid out in detail, holds up.
Better Homes & Gardens Kitchen island featured in the 1957 issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.
Located in the center of the room, the island separates work areas so guests can interact without getting in the way. The “eat bar” is low—30″ (table height)—for comfortable dining. It’s plenty deep, too, (at least 15″), so it can become a buffet and accommodate serving dishes, and the cooktop is surrounded by stainless steel—”grand for hot pans.” Cabinetry makes full use of undercounter space, and “files away platters and trays and seldom-used serving dishes and pans.”
Kitchen Islands Today
Visible from an open floor plan, islands are focal points that give homeowners an opportunity to add some style to work zones. They’re a chance to add bold color and mix in different countertop materials, or add sculptural stools and crown the whole thing with show-stopping pendant lighting. Islands keep popping up in today’s kitchens because they are as flexible as our preferences.
An island is endlessly customizable depending on the space and one’s cooking and entertaining needs. For those who like to chef with friends nearby, adding a range to the island might be ideal. But to rinse and chop veggies on a wide-open island counter, a sink may be preferred. (If you’re wondering where BHG readers fall, in January 2022, we polled followers on Instagram, and the split was 70/30 in favor of an island sink.)
Still, others might favor a stepped option that gives bar seating along with workspace, or a slightly lowered counter ideal for rolling out pastry dough. In the Montreal home above, the kitchen opens into the dining room and fits an island big enough to gather around. Painted deep blue (Stiffkey Blue No. 281 by Farrow & Ball) and with turned legs, the island looks like a piece of furniture.