Settling the debate over double islands in the kitchen, Marshall Erb engages in our rapid-fire Q&A about the pros and cons.
By Elise Hofer Shaw
How do you really feel about double islands?
Marshall Erb: For larger kitchens with surplus footprints, they make complete sense. In fact, in some instances, they’re actually a necessity. Standard countertop slabs have a maximum size that’s available for stock purchase. So if you don’t want seams, yet you want an expanded surface area, double islands are a savvy solution. Think of it like meiosis: One gets so big that it splits into two. I mean, it can be done as one giant island—but then you’re paying for custom, and you have to think about walking all the way around it.
Have they become more or less popular in recent years?
ME: Originally, the second island concept was more about adding serving space—one island for prep, the other for buffet service. But today they’re multifunctional. The kitchen is the heart of the home. And now, more than ever because of the pandemic, it’s a communal gathering space. We’re all spending more time at home with our families, and everyone naturally gravitates to the kitchen. So while double islands are still about bonus prep and service space for the chef, they’re also great for the modern family who wants to maximize counter seating. Instead of in-kitchen table dining, which means more furniture, the double island presents very clean and contemporary. With counter seating, you eliminate the need for a breakfast nook.
Can you share an example of how you have incorporated double islands in your work?
ME: The first kitchen I ever did with double islands was a kosher kitchen. The dual islands setup allowed the client to separate their meat and dairy during meal prep. But instead of doing a symmetrical pair of islands, we made one a butcher block while the other was topped in leathered granite and designed for friends and family to sit around. If you are selective with your materials for visual continuity, there’s no reason the two islands have to be identical twins.
Are double islands particularly suited to certain styles of homes? How so?
ME: As kitchens have gotten bigger, the islands have grown as well. And instead of seating for four, people now want seating for six or more at the island. We’re currently completing a contemporary kitchen where the family didn’t want a dine-in kitchen table and chairs. So instead, we gave them seating for six with a second island. Also, there’s this fun dinner theatre component to the double island scenario for people who like to cook. You’re cooking over here on one island and your guests/family are seated at the other—and you get to present them with the food as it’s being prepared. It’s very interactive, like a chef’s table in a fine restaurant. I’ve been seeing more and more demand for this type of setup over the last five years. We’ve even been known to incorporate induction heating underneath the countertops to keep the food warm!
What are the pros and cons?
ME: I think that where you can go wrong with double islands is material selection. With double islands, you have to minimize the finishes so that they are consistent so things don’t get too busy. Every component needs to tie in visually. Double islands are definitely a pro for professional chefs and Martha Stewart types because you can create stations for the cook top, deep frying, etc.—and separate those elements from the service and dining elements. A con, for some, can be the visual clutter that comes along with cooking, which is why we’re seeing the butler’s pantry morphing into these back kitchen super pantries to hide the mess of cooking. More and more things are gearing toward this idea of a presentation kitchen with clean surfaces and clean design—and a mess that’s hidden away. Also, and perhaps this is a no-brainer, but you have to have the luxury of space to have the luxury of enormous islands.
What do double islands say about a homeowner’s style?
ME: I think it says that they want the kitchen to be a space for coming together, breaking bread, and lingering over casual conversations. These homeowners want the kitchen to be the social hub—the main space for day-to-day dining, the heartbeat of the hearth and home, a communal gathering space.
Are double islands more about form or function?
ME: It’s a little bit of both. If you’re presented with a floor plan that’s long and rectangular, then double islands can be highly functional when it comes to capitalizing on a linear space. A second island can also be functional from the perspective of convenience and flow. The chef has their designated workspace that other people won’t be constantly flowing in and out of while they’re cooking, getting in the way. We’re currently installing a kitchen with double islands that was inspired by Kim and Kanye’s kitchen. One island, the cooking island, is 15 feet long and 5 feet wide. We fabricated it in Corian so it’s seamless. Then the second island is 10 feet away with seating all the way around. Here, we incorporated refrigerator drawers and wine storage so that you can easily grab for beverages while you’re dining without getting up.
Any tips for making them work within the space? What about the layout?
ME: I’m going to keep singing the same song about material selection for visual continuity. But that doesn’t mean bland or boring. Appliance placement is key, too, for effortless flow. You have to think like a chef, a parent and a host/hostess all at once. For another project we’re working on, where there’s this long 20-foot wide kitchen, we’re incorporating ample countertop serving via double islands and a wall of ovens, all while making sure that the spaces that are used most are window-facing to overlook the landscaping. We carried the materials of the perimeter to the smaller serving island for continuity. But for the larger island with the sink and cooktop, with seating on the opposite side, we opted for a beautiful explosion blue marble to make it a focal point.
How would you describe the impact?
ME: As a designer, it’s all about making the most of the space—and not getting stuck with unusable floor space that is wasted. The impact is twofold: There’s the visual impact from quality design and material selection that, together, hit the right note. But then there’s also the physical impact on the family dynamic that’s achieved by the division of the space that we’ve been talking about above—a space for the chef to function uninterrupted, a space for belly-up dining sans surplus furniture—and the opportunities for creative under-counter storage solutions when you have two islands instead of one.
Anything else to consider when planning for the perfect kitchen?
ME: Consider the flow through the space, especially when you’re working with a long, rectangular-shaped kitchen footprint. Long and linear kitchen spaces oftentimes have multiple access points to think about. And I can’t emphasize enough how nice it is when you’re the chef in the family to not have people zipping in and out of your workspace while you’re cooking. Double islands are ideal for space designation—keeping the cook/cooking on one island and the family/guests on the other. You’re all still together, but you’re not tripping over one another.