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Prep surface. Gathering spot. Storage solution. The kitchen island is one of those home elements that seems to have known its purpose from its inception: a utilitarian divider between kitchen and family zones, the heart of the home.

Over the years, the kitchen island has come to offer far more than counter space. It might include a cooktop, bookshelves, drop-down bar, sink and acres of granite.
Today's islands come in all shapes and sizes, and have been tailored for all kinds of purposes. One important addition is connectivity: Designers and architects are integrating plugs, ports and other tech features into the kitchen island.

 

For one project, New York City designer Michael Wood integrated a system of USB ports and outlets into a kitchen island that also included ample storage, good seating and a clever pet-feeding nook. "The result is a family hub of activity," he says.

Granite has given ground to more performance-friendly countertops. Engineered materials like Dekton, Silestone, Corian and others are heat-, scratch- and stain-resistant. Designers are using real and faux woods, too. And there's a trend toward combining different types of surfaces. In another project, Wood used soapstone, butcher block and Corian on the kitchen island.

"An island is a great place to be creative," says Chicago kitchen designer Mick De Giulio.  "I often combine materials and use them to define various functions."

For instance, he has used a thick chunk of hand-scraped wenge wood, for example, as a breakfast countertop: "I like the warmer, softer surface to rest your arms and elbows." Then he might use polished stainless steel as a joinery or accent element.

In a tight galley kitchen, an island might replace a wall, giving a renovated kitchen more breathing room, more light and more work space. Cabinetry and shelving on the island can hold kids' craft gear, books or barware. Built-in microwaves, ovens and deep, pullout drawers offer efficiency.

In a larger home, the island can serve even more purposes, including breakfast bar, entertainment zone or home office. Look for seating that complements the room: Sturdy bases and backrests make for safe, comfy places to settle in, while low-profile stools that slide out of sight might be all you need for occasional use. Pick pieces with easily cleaned performance fabrics, or go with plastic, steel or wood if you've got messy eaters.

Spend some time on the lighting, Wood advises. If the kitchen is a work center, put in task lighting.

"For others who never cook, lighting is almost a decorative element," he says.
Wood recommends under-cabinet LED lights and directional sconces, all dimmable. Pendants are popular, but if you've got a low ceiling, be mindful of their positioning. Minimalist horizontal fixtures that sit just slightly below the ceiling might work better; for instance, Lightology's Essence fixture, a barely-there sliver of brass or nickel, casts a warm glow but doesn't loom over the island. West Elm has the Linear pendant with a walnut finish that's slim and stylish.

If you just need an island work zone, consider Slate Design's freestanding ones designed by Mark Daniel, and available at CB2 . There's a high-gloss, white-lacquered version with a cubby, open shelving and a white marble top, or a somewhat shorter one in a gray-washed wood with marble top.

 

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