Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)
In April, a photo of Nancy Meyers’s personal kitchen circulated on the internet. It’s a lovely, well-appointed space, appropriate for a woman whose movies about wealthy middle-aged women are famous for their inclusion of expansive, beautifully kitted-out kitchens. But what struck me most was the presence of not one, but two kitchen islands, plopped in the middle of the space with no real rhyme or reason—a truly momentous flex.
The island in the background does not aesthetically match its cousin in the foreground; one is marble-topped with a second sink embedded in it and the other is more farmhouse-industrial than upscale Airbnb. Still, the fact that there’s enough space in the kitchen for such a thing is remarkable enough. Two kitchen islands in a single home is the height of luxury—just the thing that a woman who helped enshrine a particular model of dream kitchen would have in her house.
A kitchen island requires space; it is a bulky and immovable item that is both furniture and structure. They require space and stability, and it is perhaps for this reason that they’re marketed as the centerpiece of a luxury home. This idea is not just sold by Meyers, but by shelter magazines, celebrity house tours, and especially by HGTV, where the importance—and necessity—of a kitchen island is reinforced by the channel’s stars. The channel’s plentiful programming provides essential templates upon which to project my desires. Every kitchen, whether it’s designed by Karen and Mina Starsiak of Good Bones or the dead-eyed Christina Anstead and Tarek El Moussa on Flip or Flop, features an island as its centerpiece: a watchtower for domestic surveillance, an essential space for food preparation, and the real, true, beating heart of the home.
Until very recently, I lived in an apartment in New York that had a kitchen island, a small marker of success in an apartment that mostly functioned as an ersatz youth hostel. A kitchen island conveys status—the space that you need to have an island means that you have a big house and that maybe that house cost a lot of money. Like anything else that exists in a kitchen, the island can run the gamut from the humble Ikea bar cart to a custom-made Cararra marble waterfall island plopped in the middle of a freshly-renovated apartment or brand new McMansion. A few months ago, I moved into an apartment with a kitchen that is big enough to accommodate an island. There’s a kitchen table in there now, nestled between two windows, and the counter space is such that I don’t “need” anything else. But the space feels too large without an island; though I am living alone and cooking for one, there’s something about performing those tasks at an island instead of the counter that feels luxurious.
My assumption is that the kitchen island’s preponderance in contemporary home design is Frank Lloyd Wright’s fault, a necessary corrective to Wright’s passion for open concept living, which prioritized the kitchen as the center of the home, and thus arranged the living quarters around it. But the history of the kitchen island is less about surveillance and more about functionality. According to Lloyd Alter, professor at Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto, early kitchen design was geared towards practicality rather than aesthetics, culminating in the “Frankfurt kitchen,” designed by architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926. This kitchen was designed specifically for small spaces and for maximum efficiency, so that the housewives toiling in said kitchen could get in and get out quickly. A 1949 video from the United States Deprtment of Agriculture highlights how efficiency experts were connsumed with the idea of optimizing the “farm” kitchen into something modern and efficient. Through built-ins like a garbage hatch, a knife holder, and two bins for holding potatoes and onions, the “modern” kitchen of the post-war era was optimized for storage and counter space, but there is no trace of a kitchen island.
The 1950s and 1960s kitchen kept the basic structure of the optimized Frankfurt kitchen, but the space was beginning to expand with the booming postwar economy. Additions like the breakfast bar fueled a transformation into a command center. The breakfast bar, which is what designers on television call a “peninsula,” created a dedicated space for casual meals that was close enough to the action for a mother to keep an eye on their children. With the kids pulled up to the breakfast bar, doing their homework or eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the woman of the house could better keep an eye on her charges. The island is the natural outward extension of the peninsula, creating a central workspace and headquarters for the work of keeping house. “In the fifties any thoughts like those of Christine Fredericks or Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, where women would be freed from kitchen responsibilities were pretty much extinguished by the baby boom, as the woman’s job once again became cooking for dad and feeding the kids,” Alter writes.
The mid-century kitchen was a homemaker’s dominion, a place for women to do the labor of raising the children, feeding the family, and then cleaning up after all that was done. But as America settled into the post-war glow and traditional family roles became the norm, the kitchen became an even more complicated space. In the post-war national ideology of American capitalist progress, women’s cooking time was politicized, as exemplified by Nixon and Khruschev arguing about capitalism versus communism in their now-infamous “kitchen debate,” in which the two world leaders faced off in, literally, a model American kitchen set up for an exhibit in Moscow about the superior economic system. Nixon presented the kitchen and its labor-saving devices as exhibit A on behalf of capitalism.
Still, the kitchen was designed for efficiency and not for aesthetics.
. A housewife with full responsibility for making sure her children did their homework, ate food, and didn’t kill each other needed space for all of those activities under her watchful eye. A kitchen table plunked down in the middle of the space was precisely that hub, and the “need” for that sort of item in that space never quite went away.
But as lifestyles changed in the 1980s—and as the economy revved up—kitchens did too. According to Antonia Sturman, writing in The Evolution of Kitchen Design: A Yearning for a Modern Stone Age Cave, the 1980s saw the dissolution of the traditional, post-war family unit, which means that kitchen design necessarily evolved. “The kitchen as a spatial unit all but disappeared, she writes. “When possible, it was integrated into the living space: an island worktop made it possible for people to prepare meals together…The kitchen and the work and smells within it where now a subject for presentation and not something to be hidden.” Thus, the birth of the status kitchen—and the status kitchen island.
Kitchen islands really came into their own in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when kitchens became the central waystation of the home, a gathering place for the increasingly scattered members of the family and the pilot’s seat for the second shift that so many women were pulling. As open concept living gained popularity, the kitchen island became its own feature, kitted out with time-saving devices like an extra sink, or, in the case of this 1984 kitchen featured in House Beautiful, a computer station, as a nod to the changing dynamics of the home. Women returned to the workplace in droves in the ‘80s, and as the two-career family became the norm, the kitchen became a multi-purpose space, not just for eating, but for living, too. Already a space tied up with expectations for women and their work, the island became a place where people dumped things they brought from work and school, a station for holding mail, homework, and catching up at the end of the day. Settling in for an afternoon HGTV binge to watch the relics of this era destroyed on demo day before a renovation will reveal the depths of depravity interior designers and architects were willing to stoop to when it came to kitchens and the islands within; the island became a focal point and a show of wealth, replete with wine fridges, beverage fridges, and microwave drawers, and taking up huge amounts of space.
Michelle Slatalla, an editor at Remodelista, wrote about the tiny but growing backlash to the kitchen island for the Wall Street Journal in 2018, citing her own reluctance to have one. When considering a remodel of her own home, she writes, “I wanted an airy kitchen with white-tiled walls, a big window over the sink and a human-scale table, the kind where my grandmother sat when she chopped onions and where families gathered convivially—before the whole world turned into something that looks like a sports bar.”
The “human-scale table” is nothing more than a big farmhouse table, of the sort Joanna Gaines would put in a dining area just off a kitchen that was already outfitted with a kitchen island. For Slatella, an island is nothing more than a space for unnecessary kitchen frivolities, like a trash compactor or a freezer drawer for beverages—the precise sort of domestic flexes that scream status. An average family of four likely has no real need for additional freezer space beyond that of the large freezer that already lives in their kitchen, but the ability to just walk up to the island and get an ice-cold La Croix from a drawer designed specifically for that purpose is solving a problem that didn’t exist in the first place. A trash compactor might be nice to have, but it is unnecessary; the regular trash can, slotted away under a cabinet near the sink, works just fine. But now that a kitchen is the showstopper in a modern home, reason is out the window. Why live in a space that makes sense when you can live in one that simply looks good for the sake of it? A kitchen island in 2020 is less of a showstopper now, but they’re still here—less of a status symbol now and more of a fact.