No element of the modern home—not the spanking-new Vitamix blender to juice you into a Gwyneth Paltrow glow, nor the George Clooney-endorsed Nespresso machine—better reflects how we live now than the ubiquitous kitchen island. Once a statement of wealth for those with significant kitchen real estate and willingness to drop thousands of dollars on now-passé granite, the island is now perceived as a mass-market necessity. Nearly 40 per cent of kitchens planned by Ikea Canada feature some sort of ?xed island on customer request, reports company spokeswoman Alicia Zoffranieri. Homebuyers at both high- and mid-price ranges expect an island, says Toronto real estate agent Laura Fernandez. Where space is a consideration, people sacrifice the formal dining room for the island-centric kitchen-family-room combination, she says: “The island is important as an extra work area that often houses the sink and the dishwasher, as well as an eating and ‘breakfast counter,’ ” a term that real estate agents love.
The island’s popularity reflects practical and psychological needs in a stressed-out, time-strapped era. They’re a helicopter parent’s must-have. “I don’t know how you can parent without an island,” says Toronto psychologist Alex Russell. “How do you cook a nutritious dinner and monitor screen time and homework at the same time? Impossible! Impossible! You have to have a kitchen island.”
As the household hub, the island multi-tasks with the family. For wannabe Angela Harnetts, it’s a chef’s table allowing guests to mingle and watch their host. For over-scheduled modern-day Swiss Family Robinsons, it’s a place to commune with iPads and iPods while tuning one another out.
But the island as we know it, and need it, is being recast, if style-setters have their way. Lynda Reeves, for one, is no longer a fan. For a time now, the House & Home publisher has called for a moratorium on the bulky design staple. More than half of the houses she goes into have fixed islands, Reeves says with a shudder: “They’re like coffins in the middle of the room.” Often, they’ve required rewiring and plumbing with little net gain, she says: “Nobody wants to sit at a counter and look at a messy sink.”
Reeves believes the idea of the kitchen island is here to stay—only those now in vogue are airier, stand-alone “work stations” with a wood, metal or stone top. (Reeves’s own kitchen contains a 12-foot-long marble-topped table that doubles for dining.)
Slagging the old-school island, in fact, has become a marketing tool. San Francisco-based March launched its line of beautiful work tables last year as “an alternative to the monolithic kitchen island.” With prices ranging from $5,600 to $13,800 (excluding “accessories,” such as $1,400 black-ash baskets and a $550 zinc bin), they’re the new status item. And they’re not alone, with the arrival of products destined to summon island envy. Boffi’s coveted MiniKitchen by designer Joe Colombo, for instance, costs close to $30,000. Reeves raves about Bluthaup’s sleek, sculptural steel workbench series comprised of modular units—cooktops, sinks and work surfaces—that can be rearranged at will. A desire for flexibility is behind the rising popularity of islands on wheels, says Dallas interior designer Jeffrey Johnson: “It’s multi-purpose, and a better way to serve entertainment needs.”
Just as the fixed island was a response to a need to gather, display and house appliances, the new workbenches reflect a shifting emphasis on the artisanal and the authentic. Of course, people who buy their organic produce at farmers’ markets and spend weekends pickling and canning want a kitchen that channels a Tuscan farmhouse or Parisian patisserie, not Carmela Soprano’s Jersey spread. Reeves can relate: “Bulky islands are so suburban.”
So it’s not surprising that the traditional island has itself been voted off the island. That’s what happens to trends when they migrate from high end to Home Depot. Meanwhile, count on the masses to huddle around those granite-topped coffins: There’s comforting warmth to be derived from them still.