"Islands are always fantastic if you can do them because they are the social center, where people will be standing and talking at party, where you can work, talking across to each other," says Mick De Giulio of de Giulio kitchen design (degiulio.org) and author of "Kitchen Centric" (Balcony Press).
The National Kitchen and Bath Association (nkba.org) recommends at least 42 inches of aisle space surrounding an island, and 48 if there are multiple cooks. As for the island itself, the minimum surface work area is about 3 feet by 4 feet. Anything less and you're defeating the purpose. There are also reasons not to get too big.
"I don't like to make an island larger than 48 inches because then the reach becomes too large for cleaning, De Giulio says. "Five feet or wider exceeds the ergonomics of cleaning."
Samantha Emmerling, a senior editor at House Beautiful who covers kitchens and baths, says that the trend is toward smaller islands.
"They'd been getting so big," she says. "You could literally, I'm not joking, you could park a car on them. They just got too large and overwrought."
Breaking a massive island into two is one solution, she says. There is no set size. It depends on your space and how you're going to use it.
De Guilio says he's not seeing any scaling back on the popularity of islands. People aren't foregoing the island just because of budget; they see the kitchen as a place to do it right and do it long term. So an island – one piece of furniture that offers a dependable return on a homeowner's investment -- makes financial as well as practical sense.
The most common function of a kitchen island is as an extra work surface and prep area. A sink and/or dishwasher is another consideration. The island is also a gathering place, somewhere to sit. Emmerling calls it "the social center of the kitchen, which is the social center of the house."
She says more people are incorporating design features into their islands. Faux legs to make it look like furniture, pendant lamps above to give it a more decorated focus, nice counter stools.
"I see more emphasis on the design of it itself. It's not as blocky and matchy-matchy to the cabinetry."
One thing we're seeing less of is the island cook top.
"You think about the high-BTU burners on cook tops," Emmerling says, "and you're going to have to have a hood. That interferes with sightlines, and from a design perspective it's not the most attractive thing. The other option is downdraft (exhaust) and that's not the best solution for high BTU burners. You have to worry about flames with children. And more and more of these islands incorporate seating, so that's something else to consider. What I'm seeing more is an island as a prep area, a sink and faucet, and less likely a cook top."
Du Giulio says downdraft systems aren't as effective, and he designed a special knife-edge hood for a show this month in Milan. He says it's splayed at a very thin angle and made of polished stainless, "so it looks like nothing is over the island. A big hulking hood over the island, I don't like to see."
Another consideration for an island is storage. Eating utensils, plastic wraps, dishwashing soaps and cleaning supplies all can find a home there. De Giulio, who will create this year's version of the ultimate American kitchen for the House Beautiful Kitchen of the Year event in July, likes to keep the back side of an island more open, with shelving for cookbooks, for example.
Emmerling favors a basic approach to islands. A beverage area or a dishwasher may not be necessary. Without them, you can get more counter space, storage and seating.
"Pare it down to the basics, and anything else is a great addition but not necessary."