Baltimore Sun Sunday - - GAR­DEN -

you have great big ta­ble with a bunch of flow­ers where the kids can do their home­work,” she says.

Gam­brel also cites light­ness as a part of a ta­ble’s ap­peal. “Your eye sees un­der a ta­ble be­cause the legs raise it off the ground; it feels more airy and less con­trived than an is­land, which can feel bulky and dated,” he says. Part of the prob­lem in Parker’s opin­ion is the temp­ta­tion for home­own­ers to fit ev­ery­thing and the kitchen sink into the is­land. “It’s be­come a big box with too many ap­pli­ances, stools, and a garbage bin; it ends up not be­ing an aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing piece of fur­ni­ture,” she says.

But the fully loaded is­land has a tight grip on Amer­ica’s imag­i­na­tion. When peo­ple talk about the heart of the kitchen to­day, they’re of­ten re­fer­ring to this mul­ti­func­tional mono­lith. A re­cent Houzz sur­vey es­ti­mated that 38% of kitchen re­mod­els in­volved adding an is­land (that doesn’t in­clude all of the homes that al­ready have one). Some trend fore­cast­ers even pre­dict that we’ll see a rise in the pop­u­lar­ity of dou­ble is­lands in fu­ture years.

Ac­cord­ing to Home Ad­vi­sor, the av­er­age cost of a kitchen is­land is $3,000 to $5,000, though cus­tom-built op­tions can be $10,000 or more. Of course, not ev­ery kitchen can ac­com­mo­date a built-in is­land. For older houses with small or gal­ley-style cookspaces, plan­ning for an is­land in­volves open­ing up a wall or bump­ing out the back, which can in­crease ren­o­va­tion costs dra­mat­i­cally. In these sit­u­a­tions, a small- to medium-size ta­ble can be a prac­ti­cal and af­ford­able so­lu­tion, of­fer­ing com­pa­ra­ble prep space. A solid pine ta­ble from Ikea will set you back just $99, while an an­tiqued elm one with a dis­tressed metal base from Restora­tion Hard­ware starts at $1,095. If you’re in the mar­ket for a truly unique vin­tage piece, 1st dibs has an Ital­ian oak farm ta­ble with geo­met­ric in­lay for $4,000.

The ear­li­est is­lands were hum­ble work ta­bles placed in the cen­ter of the kitchen. If you were wealthy, it was where ser­vants or­ches­trated din­ner — think of the down­stairs buzz of “Down­ton Abbey.” If you weren’t, it was where you sat to peel pota­toes or roll out pie crust, of­ten in soli­tude, be­cause the kitchen was prob­a­bly cut off from the rest of the house. It wasn’t un­til the mid-20th cen­tury that the open kitchen and built-in is­land ar­rived, promis­ing to make women’s lives eas­ier.

“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, D.C. “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 new con­struc­tion for 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. “If you have a big is­land that’s open to the rest of the house and you’re try­ing to sit in the liv­ing room, you’re likely star­ing at dirty dishes,” Leav­itt says. “It looks nice when it’s clean, but given the po­ten­tial for mess, it’s sur­pris­ing that it con­tin­ues to have wide­spread ap­peal.”

One irony of the is­land is that it’s come to epit­o­mize ca­sual liv­ing, yet bel­ly­ing up to one isn’t al­ways easy or com­fort­able. A counter-height stool of­ten lacks ad­e­quate sup­port for longer stretches of sit­ting.

“There’s just some­thing nicer about re­lax­ing into a proper chair and be­ing able to spread out at a ta­ble,” Parker says.

An­other down­side: Break­fast bar-style seat­ing of­ten forces ev­ery­one to eat fac­ing the same di­rec­tion — fine for a quick bite on-the-go, but not ex­actly great for con­nect­ing with one an­other. “If you have a big is­land, as soon as the meal is over, ev­ery­one dis­perses; you don’t quite con­gre­gate in the same way,” she says.

Is­lands also tend to put guests on one side, leav­ing the per­son do­ing the work stand­ing alone on the other, which can some­times feel like an im­bal­ance of power. At a com­mu­nal ta­ble, ev­ery­one can pull up a chair and oc­cupy equal space.

“It’s a ques­tion of, ‘Why does one thing feel good and not the other?’ And it comes down to be­ing hon­est about the way we ac­tu­ally live vs. the way we think we should live,” Gam­brel says. “When you ex­pe­ri­ence an easy house where some­one likes to cook and en­ter­tain, and they serve you cof­fee at the ta­ble and there’s mu­sic play­ing, it res­onates with you; nat­u­rally, you’d want to em­u­late that.”


A gen­er­ous ta­ble brings a light­ness to a Sag Har­bor, New York, kitchen de­signed by Steven Gam­brel.

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