23 December 2010

Reader question: Is it island time for me?

Help! I live in a small house and I'm thinking about replacing my kitchen table and chairs with an island. Would this be a good or a bad idea? It's the only eating area we have in our small house.


I can't tell really because I can't see the space or the size of the table in question. So I'm going to answer this from the gut. My gut answer is no; don't do it.

Let me preface all of this by saying that all rooms and all clients are different. Some people get a lot of use out of an island and some rooms can accommodate one with little difficulty. However, you told me two things that are offering a clue. First, your house is small. Islands tend to work better in large rooms. Second, you tell me that your current table is your only eating area. So putting in an island means that you're sentencing yourself to a lifetime of eating at a counter.

I talk about this topic a lot. I suppose I'm some kind of a kitchen table advocate. I write for Houzz.com and I devoted a whole IdeaBook to kitchen tables a couple of weeks ago. Here it is:

Forgoing eating at a table and instead eating at a counter does a couple of things that I think are important. More important than any storage gains you might get out of an island.

The most important thing that happens at a kitchen table is that you eat across from someone, not side by side like you would at an island bar. When you eat across from someone, your dinner mate is the focus of your attention. Human beings don't just communicate verbally. We communicate non-verbally just as much and in order to pick up the visual cues someone else is sending, you need to be able to see his or her face. This visual communication happens a lot more easily at a table then it does at a counter.

In addition to the communication thing, when you're eating at a table you're having dinner in a place set aside specifically for eating. But more than that, it's a space set aside for eating with other people. It's a lot easier to make meals matter when they happen in a space set aside for them specifically. Island counters are by definition multi-purpose surfaces. Eating at one isn't an event, no matter how mundane.

But at a table, it's easier to turn off the electronics and focus on what's important --your loved ones.

When the only eating area you have is a counter, it becomes to easy to have shared meals fall by the wayside. It makes the "we're too busy nowadays" lie easy to internalize and make true in your own life. The fact of the matter isn't at all that "we're too busy." Instead, what "we" have is an inability to prioritize. If you make shared meals a priority you will have them. An important statement that you're making them a priority is to keep your kitchen table.

So, you asked and I answered. While it's true that installing an island doesn't doom you to divorce and delinquent kids, keeping your table will make shared meals a more common occurrence in your home.


  1. I don't know about where you live, but here it seems the furniture stores are really pushing those counter-height tables. I don't get it. They are uncomfortable for most (when your feet can't touch the floor) and make everybody feel like they're sitting at the 'kids table.'

    An eat-in kitchen with a standard-height table is great if you have the room. Though as a work counter, it's too low for taller people and it doesn't have the storage that an island or peninsula would have. Kitchen tables are great if you have the room -an obstacle if you don't.

    That being said, I agree that forgoing a dining table for a counter would would limit your choices. Also, when you trade in a peninsula for an island, it usually means you will eliminate some counter space makeing the kitchen less functional.

    If you're living in a space that is smaller than you'd like and hope to have bigger some day, then a poor design choice will most certainly effect your resale value.

    I am currently moving from a home with an awful kitchen --a U shape with a peninsula on one side with just 4' inbetween one side and another. There's no possibility of changing that without borrowing from another space. The logical thing was to move rather than remodel. Had we decided to remodel, I think we would never have been happy in the long run and would have 'over built' for our neighborhood. Moving instead is the right choice.

  2. I agree, no island. The space is nice in the kitchen!

  3. Pam: Pub tables do seem to be all the rage in the furniture stores and like you, I fail to see the point of them.

    Cabinet Parts: Thanks for the vote of confidence!

  4. Paul - great thoughts. Personally I don't think I would ever do a island in a room where there wasn't enough space for both an island and a table. Yes for some of the reasons you mentioned. (enough space=factor natural thoroughfares and chair clearance=a good bit of space! and from a guy who drew out an island including integrated table for his own kitchen). one or the other ...the real kicker for me as an avg. american w/ 2 1/2 kids...kitchen tables like say surface mounted lighting are easy to change. Bring Back the Humble Kitchen Table. Yes and Bravo!

  5. Thanks JB. It bothers me that people are so quick to discount and discard kitchen tables when they're such a natural pivot point in a kitchen.

  6. My problem with kitchen tables is that they tend to be clutter magnets, especially when you live like I do, with two teenagers. But then, every surface in my home seems to be a clutter magnet these days...

  7. When I saw the question, my knee jerk response what, “yeah, go for the counter.” But your reply made a lot more sense than mine would have! Actually, our much-maligned (and with abundant reason!) kitchen has, as its one grace, an L-shaped counter that has stools around the outside. We also have a dining room table, though, as the adjacent family room is very large. Even though it’s just me and the wife, we almost never sit at that counter to eat. I eat by myself at that counter all time and like the convenience of it. And whenever we have guests, they tend to go right to that counter. My wife and I go inside the counter, prepare the meal, serve snacks to our guests, talk with them and so forth. So it’s a wonderful addition to the kitchen.

    But on weekends, my wife almost always makes a nice breakfast for us, and when she does we sit at the dining room table so we can do the very thing you mentioned, look each other in the eye when we talk. At our age (we’re childless) sitting there with a cell phone and texting, while ignoring each other has never been a problem, but we still very much enjoy just spending time with each other. Sitting at a counter is really not conducive to that.

  8. Well Nim, you'll have to lay down the law and declare that table a clutter-free zone. Something tells me you're good at laying down the law.

    Joseph: Eye contact is the key and more and more research bears that out. Human communication's diminished significantly when parties can't see one another's faces.

  9. Sure Paul, but that means that I won't be able to put things their either!

  10. Self-discipline is its own reward Nim.

  11. I agree with the dinner table option. It also affects the atmosphere of the space, the dinner table will give a more warm and cozy feeling. You can dress it up or down depending on preference. Possibilities of style are endless with that table!

  12. Honestly, I think tables are better for people psychologically. I'm also short, 5'7", and I find table height easier to use as a prep surface than counter height.

  13. Yes, yes, yes I agree with you Paul - tables are better for communication and long lingering AND doing homework or paying bills. Islands as well as tables, or islands in the kitchen and tables nearby where you eat are all fine. But an island instead of the only table in the house? Don't do it!

  14. I adore a kitchen table centering a kitchen! Such a thoughtful answer, Paul.

  15. I don't know what we would do without our island. It looks like you have plenty of room for one too. You can go with a bar height if you wish or even multi level with deep counter overhangs on countertop for knee space. There is also a ton of storage you can gain with the interiors of base cabinet(s). I put a small fridge and an icemaker in mine that really frees up a lot of space in the big fridge. Be sure to add elect. outlets for occasional small appliances and project tools. Phone jack may be handy there too.
    Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

  16. Sarah: Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Raina: Thanks!

    Brad: The photo accompanying this post is not from the woman who asked the question. She neglected to tell me anything about the space she had other than it was in a small house. While I don't doubt you get a lot of use from your island, the situation here is asking whether she should remove the only place in her home where she can sit and eat (her table) with a counter. It's a no brainer. Islands take a lot more room to accommodate than tables do and the idea of eating Thanksgiving dinner at a counter breaks my heart.

  17. Oops. I thought that was a pic of the kitchen in question which looks big enough to me to invite a field artillery battery over. But as far as Islands go, for our house (and a few clients of mine) the island is probably the most functional and busiest place in the home. However, you do need a lot of room for it. you need to have enough room around it's entire perimeter for 2 people to pass by each other.(36" min). The one I built for my house is 2 levels with the lower being with a cooktop and range hood above and very large drawers for pots, pans, lids and large utensils below The rest of it is bar height which we like because it puts you a little higher for a better view through the widows to outdoors and is very comfortable with captains stools with foot rests. Once I put the small fridge and icemaker in the base cabinets it totally transformed the fuctionality of the whole entire kitchen. Now you don't have to shuffle around looking for a beer and now the ice machine in the freezer has been abandoned and now has plenty of room. Electrical outlets turn the whole counter sometimes into a homework station with umpteen teenagers and their laptops getting things done for school and other times the terrazzo slab counter cleans up nicely for rolling out dough for pastries etc. In short, this island is a workhorse, and I highly reccomend one for anybody that truly has enough room for one. I've found that you need about a 9" overhang for kneespace and you can sit accross from each other as at the table. Our poor dining table is quite lonely with being used only a half dozen times a year. If you don't have enough room, there are some great builders and craftsmen out there that can do something about that. Merry Holidays!


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