Curated by Carolee: Island Dine Time

February 2021 | by carolee mccall smith

“Your kitchen island is weird."

Back in the ‘80s, my parents blew out the back wall of our house to expand it for a massive kitchen. The oak cabinetry and blue tile countertops were the height of style. The crowning jewel was a long kitchen island with enough room for five swivel stools to run along one side. Spaced far enough apart that there would be minimal reason for my brothers and me to yell at each other for crossing the imaginary separating line between each seat. The problem was, when all five of us sat down to eat, we could only talk to the person next to us. My dad solved the problem by incorporating a TV into the cabinetry across from the island. Now no talking was necessary. It really was ’80s chic. 

The blue tile countertops aren’t in style anymore, but overall kitchen island designs remain the same. We make them as long as we can fit in the space with seating along one side. The end result is a multitude of awkward experiences. In scenario 1, everyone sits in a row, eating quietly while staring at the opposite wall’s cabinetry and occasionally leaning forward to yell something to someone at the other end. In scenario 2, some of the family sit along the appropriate side while one person awkwardly stands on the other side, hunched over their plate and thinking about how much their back is going to ache later. Eventually, they figure out they need to pull a stool around and sit with their legs turned one way and their body another. It balances out the achy areas. 

It’s normal. It's what we’re used to seeing. But is it the best way to do it? I don’t think so.  

A few years back, I had a client who decided to forgo the island altogether and replace it with a long farmhouse table. The result was beautiful. But I like the workspace that comes with a kitchen island. And my dining room table is only a few feet away, so it didn’t make sense for me.  

I wanted to come up with a different solution. How could I have my cake (at the kitchen island) and eat it too…while being able to carry on a conversation with whomever else was sitting there? So I created my very own chimera island: Sink/dishwasher/storage on one end; table on the other. I specifically bought backless stools so the ones on the island’s inner side could be slid under the countertop when not in use, if they were in the way.  

The result is that our family gathers around the island each night while my husband cooks dinner (because the rest of us are helpless when it comes to cooking). But at least the kids have a good excuse since they can hardly see over the counters. We’ve built a space that encourages conversation, and that makes our family stronger. Each day when I ask what he did at school, my son still responds simply with “nothing.” But he can look me in the eyes when he says it, and that makes a one-word answer infinitely better. 

My husband has declared our kitchen island his favorite feature in our home, and I tend to agree. I liked it so much I put one just like it into our Parade home last fall. Still, I occasionally get a response of “that’s weird.” I’m okay with weird. Just because we’ve long done something one way doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to make it better. For me, turning convention sideways has created unique character, function, and family time. No TV needed! 

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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