Designing Our Kitchen Island: Combining Functionality and Looks

At this point, I’ve done about 25 different kitchen island designs in preparation for our kitchen renovation. Our current island is a great size, so at least that’s a known quantity, but otherwise style, finishes and functionality are all in play! I’ll take you on a tour of how my ideas regarding function and form have evolved so far…

This is close to where I started:

Apologies for my Sketch-up skills, but once I decide to move on from a concept I don’t see much point in perfecting the look of a drawing!

Pretty much the only thing I like about this design is that the island has a ‘foot’ effect on the bottom. However, I don’t like how chopped up the cabinets and drawers are, the proportions aren’t quite right (the legs just look too big), and I don’t like how the bar top cantilevers out without any support.

Functionally speaking, we currently have a sink in our island that theoretically should be used for prep work, in addition to the farmhouse sink we use for dishes. I say “theoretically” because the faucet on the island sink is broken. The handles fall off all the time (the threads that lock them in are stripped and glues only seem to hold for a limited time). The sprayer also is broken and unusable. On top of that, the sink itself is a split style, which I can’t stand. It takes up a lot of space yet because the bowl is split into two, there isn’t any real space to actually get work done. In the design above, I kept room for a sink cabinet in the middle, designed for a deep but narrow single-bowl undermount sink, which would be far more useful and still allow for more cabinets because of the narrow sink profile.

Taking my mistakes into account, here was the next decent idea …

Here we again have space for a sink cabinet in the center, with trash and recycling doors on the far right, and drawers for knives, pots and pans on the far left. A few changes that I really liked on this design were adding the support (both visually and literally) with legs for the bar top. I also liked how this unit ‘floats’ rather than just having a recessed kick plate, but wasn’t sure about how well that would actually function. Especially with kids, I think it would be a constant battle to fish stuff out from under the island, not to mention that since this version does have a sink you would likely see the plumbing. Not great.

Here’s a view of the back:

One of the nice things about doing these rendering is you get very exact measurements so as to take full advantage of all space possibilities. On the back of the island under the bar top is space for a 7” deep cabinet to store narrow kitchen items. I really like this simple cabinet design, and as you’ll see don’t plan on changing it!

Moving on to the next idea …

This one is very similar as to cabinet organization, but has a recessed kick plate rather than legs. After drawing this out I decided I do prefer the recessed legs, mainly for practicality, but also for looks. I think having such a large piece on short stubby legs wouldn’t look very good!

One design element here that I settled on was cabinet profiles – Shaker front cabinets with flat-face drawers. Hopefully once made they would look like this design from deVol:


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On the side of my rendering you can see where I’ve drawn out a recessed area for cutting boards, and located an outlet. We currently have a recessed space for cutting boards on our island, which is very convenient, but I ultimately decided I don’t like this look. Having lived with it, I also don’t like how disgusting an open sleeve like this gets in a kitchen. The kids drop things in there, food falls in there – it is gross. It is also incredibly hard to clean. That’s why this is one design element I decided to nix!

Finally, functionally speaking you can see on the right I have two pull out cabinets for trash, recycling and compost. After more consideration I decided this is a big waste of space. I could easily move our small compost bin under a sink instead, which means I’d only need one pull out to handle both trash and recycling.

Next we have this very streamlined version …

I have to admit, I really love the way this looks. So organized, so uniform! However, practicality went out the window. There’s nowhere for trash/recycling. No sink. No built-in appliances.  No practical drawers for knives (which I definitely want located in the island, since it’s the largest counter space and where most prep is done). No space for a toaster oven or microwave. Pretty much it’s a place to put pots and maybe dishes, and that’s it.

Additionally, the legs end up taking up a lot of what would be otherwise usable drawer space. I’m still very tempted to try another version of this that is three cabinets long rather than four, again with uniform drawers. That might allow wide enough space for a toaster oven or microwave. Something to consider!

Next, I went a very different direction …

Design-wise, I decided to close in the bar top rather than give it legs. I also got rid of the legs with recessed kick plate, and replaced it with a solid kick plate around the perimeter of the island. I was very inspired by this kitchen, again from deVol:


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The biggest functional changes I made here were adding space for a toaster oven and microwave, hidden behind the top middle fronts. I imagine these functioning like so:

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This is because I hate looking at my microwave and small appliances all the time.

The next big change was … getting rid of the sink! Do we need two sinks in what is ultimately a not that big kitchen? Not really. And we desperately need more counter space. Plus, this gave me the ability to add much more functional items like the appliances, big drawers for pots and pans that would be located right across from the range, and drawers for knives.

Here’s a view of the back so you can see what the new bar seating space would look like:

I really love the look of the end caps of the island, and the closed-in bar seating. One hesitation is that it means we’ll have less room for seating, since no one could sit on the sides like they can with the ‘open’ style sides. My only other concern is that this will look too monolithic in the space. The island is large – 8’ x 4’, and four feet is a long end cap to look at!

I also did this version that had the front footed, with the back and sides with a more ‘built in’ look:

Here is the back:

I was very surprised how much I liked this look! I was able to find one example of this in action that I love as well, which makes me optimistic about the idea:


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This version provides a lot of the functionality I was looking for. Here’s a rendering with what I planned for each drawer and cabinet:

And here is the back:

This is certainly my favorite version so far. The proportions of the legs and cabinets are lovely, and it’s far more functional than any other option. The biggest questions that remain are:

  • Where to locate an outlet (or two)? I think it would have to be centered on one of the side panels, but this idea makes me sad, since it would break up the nice paneling.
  • Should I eliminate the toaster oven and/or microwave from the island altogether? I could locate them in one of our tall cabinets instead. I use the microwave pretty frequently because of the kids (heating up their inevitable leftovers, thawing broccoli to their mushy specifications, etc.), but hardly ever use a toaster oven. I wouldn’t mind walking over to a tall corner cabinet I’m designing to nuke or toast something …
  • Are the solid panels on the sides of the island just too heavy? I like it in the rendering, but it’s hard to envision if it would look bad in reality. I may haul out a piece of plywood and set it up against the side of our current island to get a better idea of what it would look like to live with!
  • Where to locate cutting boards? It would be nice to have them in or near the island, but I can’t figure out how to add a narrow cabinet without ruining the island’s look. Maybe I could put them across from the island by the range …
  • Colors and finishes! My favorite thing to think about, so I’m pretty proud of myself that instead I’m first working on function. Otherwise I might have wasted a lot of time looking for, say, an island faucet …

I’m sure there’s still so much I’m missing … any advice for island functionality or design from your own experience?

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