A short history of the kitchen island

The open concept kitchen and living space is ubiquitous these days and it often includes a sizable island that stands between the food preparation space and the living. How did that island develop?

The earliest islands were humble worktables in the center of the kitchen (think downstairs at Downton Abbey). The open kitchen and built-in island didn’t arrive until the 20th century.

“The iconic suburban image of the command-post kitchen where the woman of the house could do her work and observe the kids really resonated in 1950s America,” says Sarah Leavitt, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington. “The idea was to build this concept of family and togetherness right into the actual architecture and design of the house.”

While the island was an aspirational symbol of modern housekeeping, it was mostly a product of postwar construction of suburban single-family homes. It gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s but didn’t become a mainstream design element until the 1980s and ’90s, when open-plan kitchens became the rage, buoyed by the popularity of the Food Network and HGTV.

Suddenly, the island wasn’t just a prep space but also a stage to perform for your guests, though visibility has its drawbacks. “It looks nice when it’s clean,” Leavitt says, “but given the potential for mess, it’s surprising that it continues to have widespread appeal.”

An interesting shift over the span of roughly one hundred years: from a surface for getting things done in the kitchen to a gendered command center to more of a performance space and status symbol. A few thoughts:

1. Would knowing the past history of the island – workspace, more out of sight in upper-class households, and place for wives/mothers to observe their household – change how current homeowners think about the island? Is the island now past all of these connotations and simply about appearances or modern conceptions of open family space? Do homeowners and visitors feel like islands are freeing or are they confining in new ways?

2. Could the pendulum swing back to using the island for essential duties? Imagine a continuing decrease in social interaction and less justification in buying entertaining spaces when entertaining in large numbers rarely happens. Or, a backlash against all the eating out leads to more people prepping food at home.

3. The full article suggests some have already reacted against islands by going back to tables which have some nice features in comparison. Is the perfect world then having space both for a sizable island and an intriguing table?

 

One thought on “A short history of the kitchen island

  1. Pingback: Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas | Legally Sociable

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