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Fantasy islands
7 ideas to make your kitchen's centerpiece versatile and attractive



Once thought of as a nice luxury to have in oneís kitchen, todayís island ó in all its glorious versatility ó has become an essential element. Islands have become such a centerpiece that some who donít have one feel stranded on ó well, you get the picture.

"About 70 percent of our kitchen customers want one," says Molly Madsen, a designer with Affordable Bath and Kitchen in Greenfield and Mequon. "Islands have become a standard part of what people think of in a new or remodeled kitchen."

And why not? Showrooms and promotional photos showcase kitchen islands in almost every size, style and function. They provide space for every function in a kitchen and then some, a kind of Swiss army knife of living.

"Itís hard to imagine just a simple butcher block square that was the original island years ago," says Nick Kerzner, owner of Kerzner Remodeling and Construction in Oconomowoc.

Milwaukee area kitchen design experts offer advice on how to turn your fantasy island into reality.

Get a good fit

"The rule of thumb is to have at least 36 inches and preferably 42 inches of space all the way around the island," Madsen says. "This gives enough space to walk past, even with stools, and to allow for dishwashers and other appliance doors to have enough clearance. I tell people who want an island to cut out a piece of cardboard in the size and shape they want for their island, tape it to the floor and then walk around this space for several days to see how it feels."

If you donít have the space, you might want to consider a peninsula instead, experts advise.

Also, if you hang a pot or glass rack above the island, make sure the rack is well within the island footprint so that you donít bang your head on whatís hanging down.

Consider its function

"You have to decide whether it is going to be a cooking space, an eating space or something else," Madsen says. "The flexibility of an island is that it can be your primary cooking area, a food preparation area, an eating space, a storage area, an interesting focal point for the room with little function or a combination of things."

Functions may include a full cooktop, prep or bar sink, wine coolers, refrigerators, trash compactors, dishwashers, bookshelves and cabinets to store or even showcase china and stemware. Russ Waters, a designer with Wisconsin Kitchen Mart in Milwaukee, says the space will drive the function.

"You canít just load it up with everything you can think of," he says. "A good example is that some people try to have a raised snack area that is just 12 inches deep. You really need 18 inches; otherwise youíre knocking glasses over."

Pull up a chair

Another functional rule is to arrange island seating so that diners can interact with each other ó so donít line them up in a single row ó and that they can also converse with the cook.

The cook can keep an eye on children doing homework or making craft projects if there is ample seating and counter space at the island.

Coordinate and contrast

Like his colleagues, Rob Craig, general manager of The Kitchen Center in Brookfield, points to all the versatility in materials and design. The materials can add a contemporary or classic touch with how a metal or hard surface or a carved wood is incorporated.

"You can either match or contrast what you already have in your kitchen," he says. "Some people choose to carry a design element to the island. You can use heavy wood, stainless steel or quartz or other hard surface. You can also combine the surfaces."

Robin Swernoff, owner of Lakeside Stoneworks in Brown Deer, suggests mixing and matching granites. "Itís not unusual to see different materials used in various levels of an island," she notes.

Also of note is that islands have broken out from their typical square or rectangular designs to a variety of other shapes including curved and oval.

Place for storage, individuality

Diane Cramer, a designer with World of Wood of Oconomowoc, says she has incorporated family antiques into a design, provided a customized space underneath for a dog bed, built in a television for the backside of a unit and developed a specially designed raised 6-inch square center as a decorative focal point.

"We incorporated a little pin spot (light) to illuminate the center, which was in a very large island that you could not reach across," Cramer says.

Gene Mulligan of Mulligan & Associates of Mequon says one design had a pop-up mixer in a space with several work areas. "We did one 8-foot by 4-foot island that had wine racks, book shelves, microwave and a rollout drawer with a bread maker," he says. "If you have the space, you can do that."

Architectural element

Richard Froze of Froze Design-Build in Milwaukee just completed a project that made a room divider out of an island by building two towers anchoring a valance. The towers, he says, are lighted and hold pantries while the valance provides a space for artwork. The entire piece is about 12 feet long by 42 inches wide and 9 feet high, a foot short of the ceiling.

"It divides two rooms (kitchen and living room) in a bungalow style home," he says, adding that Arts and Crafts Style elements were incorporated in the design.

Utilitarian functions

Froze notes that another unusual island utilized mobility as well as function. "It was basically a prep area on rollers situated over a floor receptacle in the kitchen," he says. "After the prep was done, though, the homeowner could wheel the whole unit into the dining room or living room for serving."

Islands, then, serve the vital function of enhancing the kitchenís expanding role as a center of household activity.

"When you think about it, islands make a lot of sense," Cramer says. "Not only can you do all the things that are needed for the kitchen, it can be a place to do homework, pay bills, fold laundry or whatever else you need to get done."