An island liberates a kitchen from its claustrophobic confines, working like a hinge, a tie that binds the kitchen - and, more important, the cook - to a dining room or family room. Yet it distinguishes the cooking area from other spaces.
Except for high-tech appliances, nothing has changed the form and function of the American kitchen more in the last decade than the advent of the island. It has allowed the kitchen's fourth wall to be eliminated without sacrificing storage space and work surfaces that, ordinarily, would have been appended to that wall. It has also fostered the open floor plan, making small and modest-sized kitchens look larger than they really are.
Inevitably, it becomes the pivot point around which modern household life revolves. By virtue of its center-stage positioning, an island is a magnet that attracts family and visitors alike. It is a preparation station that can be worked at from all four sides. It keeps spectators at bay and helpers close, but out of the cook's domain. It is where groceries land, meals get made, buffets are served and homework gets done. No wonder, then, that an island is one of the most sought-after amenities offered by home builders and remodelers.
Not all of us, though, have the luxury of buying a new house or reconfiguring an old kitchen just to get an island. Nor do we have to. These days, there's a veritable archipelago of ready-made, free-standing islands available from - surprisingly - furniture stores.
Most are a standard 36 inches high, the same as typical countertops, and 27 to 32 inches deep, slightly deeper than the standard counter. Any one of them storage space, too.
Furniture manufacturers have contracted island fever as well, reflecting another recent kitchen trend: Furniture-quality cabinets. When the walls around kitchens came tumbling down, kitchens began to take on a less utilitarian demeanor. Plain-Jane kitchen cabinets evolved to resemble china cabinets, armoires and other respectable case goods rendered in classic furniture and architectural styles - Shaker, arts and crafts, Victorian, Colonial and more.
It took furniture manufacturers a surprisingly long time to realize that the kitchen, from which they had long been banned (except for kitchen tables and chairs), was open to them as well as to cabinetmakers.
Contemporary versions are available, but the most popular ready-to-serve islands are countrified pieces. It's a reflection of the public's preference for casual, homey and hospitable kitchens. This carries over to decorating schemes that tend toward the farmhouse, cottage and lodge.
But rustic doesn't necessarily mean unrefined. The Pinehurst island/server from Drexel-Heritage looks like a European antique. The elegant marble top, lattice-panel doors and distressed pine finish make it look as if it came from a chateau. Like most furniture islands, the finish is on all four sides so the piece can float in the middle of a kitchen or between a kitchen and a dining room. Or, also like the others, it can be pushed up against a wall and used as a peninsula in a kitchen or as a buffet or sideboard in a dining room.
The Calabash server from Lexington looks like an architectural artifact from a Victorian cottage kitchen. Painted white, it has fluted and tapered posts at each corner, beadboard end panels, louvered doors on two sides and carved corbels that support an oiled butcher-block top. Two drawers, with vintage-style cup pulls, can be pulled open from either side. A pullout shelf beneath the drawers makes an instant snack bar. At 37 1/2 inches, it's 1 1/2 inches higher than most other furniture islands.
Of course, neither the piece from Drexel-Heritage nor the one from Lexington will be a perfect match for your kitchen cabinets. In fact, none of the furniture islands will be. Then again, that's the idea. To give a kitchen a furnished look, rather than a built-in look, it is perfectly permissible for an island to stand apart from the cabinets. If it looks like a well-used heirloom, all the better.
Furniture makers do not have a corner on island real estate. Once limited to making islands out of their own standardized cabinets, cabinet manufacturers are now making free-standing furniture islands, too. The advantage of buying through a kitchen cabinet dealer is that you can probably have the piece customized, in terms of size, features and finishes, to fit your needs.
Still another alternative is to make an island or work table out of a piece of furniture originally intended as something else. For their kitchen, one California couple used an antique baker's table. To raise the table to countertop height, they had four short legs welded to the bent wrought-iron base. The marble top is an ideal surface for pastry making.
For an island with storage, you could use a pair of back-to-back dressers, although you would have to devise a new top to tie the two pieces together. Or, you could recycle an old buffet, sideboard or hutch by adding a new top of laminate, ceramic tile or granite and finishing the sides or backs with paint or paneling.
New or recycled, the ready-to-serve island offers cooks the ability to reorient an otherwise adequate kitchen without costly remodeling. And because they're portable, when you move they can, too. You can't say that about built-ins.
Broyhill: 1 Broyhill Park, Lenoir, N.C. 28633; 800-327-6944.
Habersham Plantation: P.O. Box 1209, Toccoa, Ga. 30577; 800-422-3774.
Lexington: P.O. Box 1008, Lexington, N.C. 27293; 800-539-4636.
Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry: 800-447-9006.
Williams-Sonoma: 10000 Covington Cross, Las Vegas, Nev. 89134; 800-541-2233.