Don't Move, Improve: Counter intuitive

Who says that kitchen units have to stand next to walls? Islands are back – and this time they’re useful
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Remember when kitchens were just a place to cook? It seems an almost ludicrous idea now, in the age when the kitchen has become the focal point of our homes, but even though we've been conducting more and more of our lives in this room over the past decade, we're still working out what it all means for architects and interior designers.

Perhaps the biggest problem is one of personnel. When we're looking to revamp this important room, many of us call a "kitchen designer". These people may know the different cupboard sizes and how to put together a good cooking space in terms of form and function, but if the kitchen is to function for more than just food preparation, many of them struggle.

And this is why more architects, when they get the chance to design a kitchen, are bringing back the island. I know – you've got a mental image of a 1980s yuppie paradise in mind, all shining marble, with look-at-me chrome stools at the breakfast bar. But the island is back – and this time it's not just a gimmick.

The classic way to lay out a kitchen is simply to wrap units and worktops around the periphery of a room, parking all of the functions against the walls. On first sight this seems eminently sensible – plumbing, waste, gas and electricity can be run along the walls within the base units and there is a central space to operate within. But it is important to recognise that this is by no means the only or necessarily the best layout.

For a start, the units have to break where there are doors, many kitchens have as many as three doors in different walls – to hallway, living and garden, for example. This can mean a very broken-up layout of units.

Second, the use of all of the wall space for units leaves nowhere for radiators. Underfloor heating can be a solution, but will not be suitable or affordable in every case. And having units against the walls means that no windows can be lower than worktop height.

Worse still, if this space is supposed to be the epicentre of household interaction, anyone at a worktop facing the wall has their back to everyone else – hardly conducive to harmonious conversation.

A project that we undertook two years ago gave us the opportunity to propose something different. Not just a kitchen island, but an island that pretty much filled the room.

In this case, we had a whole wall of floor-to-ceiling glass to the garden, so there was no opportunity for units there, and with further doors leading to the utility room, the hallway and the living/dining room, there was really only one short wall for units.

Our proposal involved a huge, square, solid walnut worktop that left functional space all around, and all but one of the walls quite free. Our customers were nervous about its scale but held their nerve and now are delighted with the result.

The one wall carries high-level units, fridges and ovens as well as the sink and dishwasher. This keeps the debris of meals away from the centrepiece and provides masses of storage close to the action. But the giant island is the hero here. Food is prepared, homework undertaken and coffee consumed, with everyone facing each other. An extractor hood and a beautiful sculptural light from Artemide hover above this impressive plane. If the kitchen is the heart of the house, the island is the beating heart of the kitchen.

Hugo Tugman is the founder of Architect Your Home.