Design & Make

Julia Child, Frank Lloyd Wright & the History of the Kitchen Island

by Erin Klabunde January 25, 2019

I live in New York, where space comes at a premium. That made it all the more special when our group arrived at our Airbnb in Nashville for my cousin’s bachelorette weekend. The bright, modern house was spacious and accommodating—and the kitchen featured a huge island that quickly became our gathering spot. We spent the first night, when we could have been out enjoying Nashville’s nightlife, gathered around the island, swapping stories and laughing till tears ran down our cheeks.

These days, kitchen islands are the place to be. They provide additional space for meal and baking prep, sure, but they also serve practical and social functions: You can keep an eye on the kids while you chop and dice, or you can serve charcuterie and wine to your guests while watching the meal in the oven. On weekday mornings, you might help your kids with last-minute test prep or get a pep talk from your partner before heading out the door to give a presentation.

Simply put, the island’s come a long way from the dark, formal days of the Victorian Era, when, in finer homes, the kitchen itself was consigned to the back of the house. At that time, the room served a purely practical purpose: a place where the hired help prepared, cooked, and plated meals. Think of Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen in Downton Abbey: a decidedly working-class realm, always bustling with activity and heat from the fire.

Things started opening up—both literally and socially—in American kitchens during the 1930s. As fewer Americans enlisted live-in help, the kitchen needed to be more accessible. Frank Lloyd Wright created the first open-plan living space that placed the living and dining areas next to each other. No longer was the kitchen a faraway room. Instead, its new prominence within a house’s floor plan made it the true heart of the home.

By the 1960s, another famous name was helping to change perceptions around the kitchen, and, more specifically, the kitchen island: Julia Child. Americans delighted in watching the ebullient chef at her island, giving her birds a generous butter massage before popping them in the oven. Julia helped change viewers’ perceptions of what the kitchen could be: Instead of a place of drudgery and toil, it could play host to moments of culinary excitement and experimentation.

Today, the kitchen island is more than just an additional countertop. It provides space to gather, extra storage, and an opportunity to express the homeowner’s design sensibility. Give the back of yours a pop of color with a bright paint job, or add texture and pattern with tiles. Built-in open shelving shows off beautiful ceramics or a gleaming KitchenAid mixer.

If you don’t have a built-in island, there are plenty of freestanding options to choose from. Of course, we’re partial to the timeless style and unsurpassable quality of this walnut version (complete with dovetail joinery and bronze handles). It upgrades a classic design with premium materials and American handcraftsmanship. In other words, exactly what we’re looking for in a piece of furniture we use every day.

In the market for an island of your very own? We’re proud to offer the Kaufmann Kitchen Island, crafted of solid black walnut. 

Kaufman Kitchen Island

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