"Welcome," as Ricardo Montalban used to say, "to Fantasy Island."
He was greeting dreamy-eyed naifs in a cheesy TV series. But he could have been welcoming homeowners to the kitchen of today.
When that television show was in its heyday in the early '80s, "open" floor plans — homes with fewer but bigger rooms — were starting to become popular, and the kitchen island was sprouting in them like Hervé Villechaize popping up to announce "de plane! de plane!"
The island now is such a fixture that Omaha-area remodelers — who, by the way, report brisk business since the recession persuaded more homeowners to stay put — say almost every kitchen-ista wants one, whether the cook is a man or woman, budding chef or habitual microwaver. Driven by cultural trends, the island not only dominates kitchen design but also has diversified lately into a bewildering variety of shapes, styles and features.
"Everybody who's remodeling wants an island," said Susan Kemp, a designer for Consolidated Kitchens and Fireplaces, one of the largest remodelers in the region.
And in new homes, where retrofitting a hulk into existing space isn't an issue, "I don't know that we've built a house without one," said Pat Knobbe, who co-founded Advance Design & Construction in Omaha in 1998. Some new homes are even getting two kitchen islands — practically an archipelago — or giant U-shaped islands that nearly surround the chef with workspace, he said.
Why the island fixation?
In short, designers say, the cook has changed in the past 30 years. No longer is she exiled to the kitchen like June Cleaver, isolated from the rest of the house and family. And, of course, no longer is she always a she. The kitchen often holds a he.
"A lot of men have kind of channeled their inner chef, from watching the cooking shows . the HGTV effect," said Kemp. Or maybe it's a he and she cooking together.
Moreover, the cook is interacting with the rest of the family — chatting about the day's events, overseeing homework — while stirring the pot. Or the cook is sipping wine and socializing with guests while doing his best top-chef impersonation. For some folks, eating out no longer is the Big Event — eating at home is. It all happens on the island.
"Kitchens have become the gathering point," said Knobbe, and the island is what people are gathering around. Physically, it replaces the floor-to-ceiling barrier between the traditional kitchen and the family or dining room.
"The island has become 'the wall' and the kitchen table," as Kemp puts it.
That's easy in new houses, where nothing must be voted off the island because homeowners can plan space from the outset.
But for houses built years ago, when the number of rooms was more of a bragging point than their size — tight quarters might mean that even if a homeowner is ready to tear down walls, the island remains a fantasy.
"I get the request on almost every job," Scott Byrd, owner of Kitchens by Design/Nebraska Home Improvement, said of island lust.
Here are recent trends, including some tricks designers suggest to squeeze an isle into narrow waters:
>> The peninsula. If you haven't room for an island — generally at least 36 inches of space on each side — then attach one side to a wall. This still can open up the kitchen and let the cook stand on one side facing his nibbling guests.
>> Think smaller. An islet — even a modest butcher block — can be useful and cute. For even more flexibility in a tight space, put it on wheels. "Most people think you can put an island in there and it's no big deal," but often it's not that simple, said Gregg Studanski, whose G&J Remodeling has been accomplishing the feat since 1993. Some remodeling clients even have an ambitious island plan already masking-taped onto the floor when he arrives, he said. Sometimes he counsels them to throttle back.
>> The eating-bar evolution. The island began its kitchen life long ago as a workstation. Now, especially over the past decade, "it replaces the kitchen table" and sometimes the dining table too, said Byrd. So seats along one side for diners are common.
>> Flat as a pancake. Two-level islands — one level for cook, a higher one for diners — once were the rage. People still choose them for some situations, such as to help hide a sinkful of dishes. But the trend is toward a single level, several designers said. It maximizes working surface and visibility between kitchen and family area.
>> Odd shapes. Islands long ago moved beyond simple rectangles. Unusual forms can add drama — one remodeler says he recently installed a grand-piano shape — and can help solve tight-space problems. On the other hand, "bat wings," or a rectangle with tips slanting off at each end, are passé, said Kemp, because they waste valuable storage space.
>> The surface. Granite still is the rock star, aided by recession-related price declines in some varieties, contractors say. Composite surfaces and good old laminate continue to hold a share of the market. But homeowners dreaming of out-of-the-ordinary countertops are turning to alternatives such as hardwood or glass, said Kemp.
>> The furniture look. Part of that out-of-the-ordinary trend, designers say, is to color and style the island differently from the rest of the kitchen's cabinets, perhaps giving it ornate legs, fancy corbels or other custom-furniture touches. These are islands intended to be center-stage divas, not merely functional.
>> Size matters, at least to a certain class of customer. "They're getting bigger," Knobbe said. Or as Studanski summed up: "We've built some impressively big islands."
When the island substitutes for the kitchen table, or even the dining table, it must seat a lot of people. And an island the size of, well, an island has room for lots of features. Not just a sink. Not even just a gas cooktop and fancy hood. How about both? How about a desk built into one end? Wine racks? Electrical outlets that pop up from the surface?
If you can imagine it, someone has probably built it into a fantasy island. As Ricardo Montalban would say, "Smiles, everyone. Smiles!"
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