Kitchen Island Ideas for Old Houses

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This narrow antique table creates a simple island workspace with a vintage vibe.

This narrow antique table creates a simple island workspace with a vintage vibe. (Photo: Edward Addeo)

Oversized islands may be everywhere these days, but they didn’t exist in early kitchens. Still, the concept of a separate workspace started showing up as early as the 18th century, which means it is possible to design an island for today's needs while hewing to historical examples.

Successful islands can take many approaches in vintage homes: They can be modeled on early worktables and remain on the simple side, or appear as a a more solid piece of woodwork with turned legs or bun feet, as though evolved over time from a piece of furniture. They can integrate numerous bins, drawers, and cabinets, reminiscent of early Hoosier baking cabinets. They can even be comprised of a repurposed antique like a candy-store counter, pharmacy built-in, or dresser.

18th Century

In the 18th century, kitchens often had a simple dry sink, a rectangular cabinet used to wash dishes before indoor plumbing, and a central worktable. Worktables began as fairly plain objects standing on open legs, and were used to knead dough, prepare foods, and store cooking accessories. Because kitchens were not family spaces at the time, worktables really weren’t used for sit-down meals.

It all began with a simple worktable (often placed around the perimeter of the room), like this one from an 1895 advertisement.

It all began with a simple worktable (often placed around the perimeter of the room), like this one from an 1895 advertisement. (Photo: Arcalus Archive)

Benches added beside an old-fashioned farm table create a space for working or gathering around a meal.

Benches added beside an old-fashioned farm table create a space for working or gathering around a meal. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

Benches added beside an old-fashioned farm table create a space for working or gathering around a meal.

While dual-height islands are unusual, the bench side evokes early work tables and the counter-height side offers plenty of work and cabinet space. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

19th Century

As kitchens marched toward more efficient designs during the late 19th century, innovative designers like Austria’s Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky began integrating storage and working features into every nook and cranny (efforts that led to modular kitchen cabinets). The simple worktable transformed, too, becoming a space with drawers and cabinets, or even built-in bins.

The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Austrian architect Margarette Schütte Lihotsky, brought thoughtful compartments to every area of the kitchen, and would have a huge and lasting impact on the functionality of kitchen spaces—including the old standby work table.

The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Austrian architect Margarette Schütte Lihotsky, brought thoughtful compartments to every area of the kitchen, and would have a huge and lasting impact on the functionality of kitchen spaces—including the old standby work table.

The Frankfurt Kitchen, designed by Austrian architect Margarette Schütte Lihotsky, brought thoughtful compartments to every area of the kitchen, and would have a huge and lasting impact on the functionality of kitchen spaces—including the old standby work table.

A custom, modern farm table integrates both storage drawers and copper bins for flour baking needs. (Photo: Greg Kozawa)

The working side of this island harbors storage, a sink, and dishwasher, while the other side affords the perfect place to pull up a stool.

The working side of this island harbors storage, a sink, and dishwasher, while the other side affords the perfect place to pull up a stool. (Photo: Bruce Martin)

20th Century

By the mid-20th century, larger homes and an increasing emphasis on entertaining added stools and snazzier designs to kitchen islands. Within a couple of decades, kitchens were boasting solid built-in center islands that were the belle of the kitchen ball, conversation pieces in their own right, and the precursors to today's hub-of-the-home kitchen islands.

The open floor plans of mid-century houses—and the era's emphasis on entertaining—played up the idea of kitchens as a gathering space, which opened the door for peninsulas and islands designed for people to cluster around.

The open floor plans of mid-century houses—and the era's emphasis on entertaining—played up the idea of kitchens as a gathering space, which opened the door for peninsulas and islands designed for people to cluster around. (Photo: Arcalus Archive)