Ah, kitchen islands — the staple wishlist item of every open-plan kitchen. By now, we all know how I feel about open-concept kitchens…not great. I don’t love them. In fact, I’ve written many blogs on the tyranny the open-concept kitchen holds over our home lives, forcing us to do performative housework while letting the chore (and smells) of cooking seep into the textiles of what’s supposed to be relaxing living spaces. But I digress.
Kitchen islands made their design world debut over 80 years ago, and they’re still going strong. While I’m not fond of them, it’s time we find ways to maximize the kitchen islands we’re stuck with. By taking a few design considerations into account, I believe we can even find some benefits in kitchen island seating. (However, I am by no means converting my stance on the issue. Closed galley kitchens all the way!) In this Design Glossary entry, I share the definition and history of kitchen island seating, the types of seating options available, how to maximize the design, and the potential benefits of kitchen islands when planned right.
What is Kitchen Island Seating?
Simply put, kitchen island seating is casual dining built into the kitchen itself. Typically, the island serves as a divider or transitory space in an open-concept kitchen floor plan. However, islands can also be incorporated into larger closed-concept kitchens. In order to be successful, the island design needs to include a 12 to 19-inch deep overhang and proportionate bar stools at table, counter, bar, or high-top heights. While kitchen island bars are the most common design, island seating can also include tabletop drop-downs, built-in banquettes, and other creative seating options.
A Brief History of Kitchen Islands in Interior Design
So, how did we go from the closed-concept galley kitchens of my dreams to open-concept kitchens with massive islands? Well, the history of the kitchen island all started in 1938. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a Minneapolis home for Nancy and Malcolm Willey, who loved entertaining. He created a kitchen open to the main living space so Nancy could cook while talking to her guests. From there, the idea took off as floor plans became larger and more open, thanks to architectural advancements. In 1944, Better Homes & Gardens published their first story on kitchen islands. The design featured a short dividing wall to hide pots and pans and didn’t include seating. By 1957 Better Homes & Gardens revealed the “living island,” touted as a hub of socialization and meal prep. After that, kitchen islands only continued to grow in popularity. Now, the most common HGTV buzz phrase is, “Can we take out this wall and add a kitchen island?” In many cases, the feature is expected and added without regard to functionality and form. However, kitchen island seating can be done right with a few design considerations.
Kitchen Island Seating Design Considerations to Keep in Mind
Adding kitchen island seating without regard to the space can result in your knees bumping the counter as you hunch over your morning coffee. If you must have a kitchen island (or have an existing one and need to make due), follow these design considerations.
One of the biggest factors to consider is the relationship between your counter height and bar stool. Personally, I believe the most comfortable seating option is to drop a portion of the kitchen island to standard dining table height. However, counter, bar, and high-top height islands are much more common. When determining the appropriate stool height, allow for at least 9 to 12 inches of space between the seat top and the bottom of the counter overhang.
The counter overhang depth is also crucial for providing a comfortable experience. If you don’t have an overhang on your kitchen island, you don’t have island seating. I’ve seen far too many people line up bar stools around an island only to have their knees bump the cabinets. For comfortable dining, you need a 12 to 19-inch deep overhang.
Kitchen islands should place function first and aesthetics second. Just because you like an island’s look doesn’t mean it’s the right design decision for your space. The island should allow enough room for people to sit while maintaining clear walkways for the chef. Additionally, the island shouldn’t project uncomfortably into the living spaces.
If your island seating is not comfortable, no one will want to sit there. I like to ensure the kitchen seating is positioned to the best view, possibly a window rather than a pantry door. Additionally, the seat height, depth, and weight must feel proportioned and cozy enough to enjoy a meal or keep the chef company for a while.
Types of Kitchen Island Seating Options Available
Here are the different types of kitchen island seating options available.
Table Height Drop Down
Creating a table height drop down from your island countertop will help differentiate work and dining spaces and create a more enjoyable relaxing spot. Lower seating in a kitchen reminds us of farm table seating, a popular feature in early American kitchens.
A countertop bar creates a more streamlined look, extending one flat surface to include an overhang deep enough to accommodate bar stools. This setup is appropriate for casual dining.
Bar Height Seating
To accommodate bar height seating, a kitchen island typically includes a small raised wall separating the work and dining areas. This bi-level design will also provide an island backsplash and help hide kitchen messes from view.
Leaving countertop dining behind, built-in banquettes can be attached to the back of or next to an island to create a wall of built-in seating with a traditional table. This comfortable option keeps folks close to the kitchen while delineating the living and workspaces. If you must have a kitchen island, this is the way to do it!
Benefits of Kitchen Islands (When Done Right)
While the walls of closed-plan galley kitchens actually provide more storage, kitchen islands can help alleviate storage needs when the walls inevitably come crashing down. Get creative with your island storage needs, adding shelving, wine racks, and drawers.
The greatest benefit of kitchen islands is their ability to create conversation areas when designed right. They can draw people into the kitchen to snack, dine, or just keep the chef company. However, this can also be done through breakfast nooks and even by creating a cozy corner with a nice armchair.
Will the Kitchen Island Stick Around?
Kitchen islands aren’t going anywhere. However, more and more folks are realizing the benefits of closed-concept layouts. After all, it’s pretty luxurious to close the door on the dishes in the sink and enjoy a glass of wine in your “greasy-smell free” lounge. While kitchen islands have their benefits when done right, I would like to invite you all to consider other in-kitchen dining options, like banquettes and breakfast nooks. Keep your options open.
Don’t get stranded on the deserted kitchen island when trends turn around.
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Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.