The kitchen island could be a thing of the past – here’s why

When the actress Sienna Miller recently revealed the kitchen at her Buckinghamshire -country cottage in an interview with Architectural Digest (which immed-iately stormed Instagram), it crystallised a certain look that has been quietly -rising up the style ranks. With its wooden table, free-standing appliances and rustic shelves piled with crockery, Miller's kitchen sums up the look that is designed to be relaxed, comfortable and unfussy - in fact, almost un-kitcheny by modern standards.  While some still favour wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling cabinetry to keep cooking paraphernalia out of view, there is a groundswell of enthusiasm for an altogether more homespun aesthetic.

The cottagecore trend that has soared on social media in recent years has helped spearhead a vogue for a more old-style, cobbled-together approach to kitchen design, which is just as popular with fashion-conscious millennials living in the city as it is with the countryside dwellers with whom one might more readily associate the look. The pull of a country kitchen is its easy, comforting feel - the direct opposite of the acres of shiny white cabinetry that were all the rage a decade or so ago.  Indeed, according to the home-improvement website Houzz, searches for country-style kitchens have been steadily rising and were up 45 per cent this spring in compar-ison with the same time last year.

It's a style that is characterised not so much by slick, minimalist units, huge kitchen islands and mega fridges, but by -trad-itional free-standing stoves and appliances, mismatched unfitted cupboards and pans hanging from hooks. The interior designer Kathryn Ireland, known for her laid-back, comfortable and colourful approach to English-country-house style, has no truck with the modern phenomenon of the fully fitted kitchen, which she calls "the posh hospital look". "Those huge fitted kitchens that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and I always wonder why. Why would you put in all that cabinetry?" she asks. 

'Those huge fitted kitchens that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds,' says Ireland'Those huge fitted kitchens that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds,' says IrelandCredit: Tim Beddow

Instead, she favours a looser and markedly less clinical look - one that also happens to work well in an open-plan living arrangement where the kitchen and sitting room occupy the same space; after all, a cabinet-heavy kitchen is hardly conducive to relax-ation.

"The kitchen to me is such an important place," says Ireland, "but I don't want to be constantly reminded that I'm in a kitchen; I want to feel like I'm in my living space. Even if you've got a vast house with a separate dining room and sitting room, at the end of the day we're all drawn to the kitchen. It's the hub of life, so go for comfort."

Ireland's approach is to opt for -minimal, unobtrusive fitted cabinetry - for example, around the sink area - and mix this with free-standing storage -cabinets and appliances, as well as open shelving rather than more -cabinets above the worktop. At her own -holiday home in France, what she calls "the live-in kitchen" - which incorp-orates a sitting area and a working -fireplace - occupies what used to be a cow barn. She uses the old manger as a serving sideboard, and also has -several favourite pieces she has picked up at antiques fairs and flea markets, such as an old armoire for storage, and a -marble-topped unit that she uses both for storing plates and for chopping -vegetables.

She is not a fan of the statement American-style uber-fridge-freezer, though: "I don't want to have the equi-valent of a Hermes handbag looking at me." Instead she prefers a small under-counter fridge that doesn't impact on the aesthetic of the room. Somewhat controversially, she is not a fan of the central-island unit, ubiquitous though it may be in the modern kitchen, and prefers a good old-fashioned kitchen table in the middle of the room. But she also emphasises that "proper height work surfaces are a must".

'I don't want to be constantly reminded that I'm in a kitchen; I want to feel like I'm in my living space,' says Ireland'I don't want to be constantly reminded that I'm in a kitchen; I want to feel like I'm in my living space,' says IrelandCredit: Kathryn Ireland

A key advantage to this somewhat undone kitchen look, particularly in current times, is that it is a far more cost-effective route to take than fitting wall-to-wall cabinets and drawers, as well as looking more characterful. "Most of us are on a budget, and you can absolutely overspend unnecessarily in the kitchen," says Ireland. "Decide what it is that you want, then go on eBay.

Instead of a built-in pantry cupboard, buy an old armoire and fit it with shelves, or get an old workbench and have a sink dropped into it. "You can find some wonderful pieces of furniture for not much money, and the great news is, if you make a mistake, it's not going to be an expensive one. Because it's not fitted, you can change the layout and move it around if it doesn't work for you."

As to the question of whether a kitchen with minimal cabinetry and an unobtrusive fridge works on a practical level, Ireland recommends - where space allows - having a small ancillary room for what she calls "the guts of the kitchen", or the working parts you might need but don't necessarily want to see on a daily basis, such as a larger fridge or freezer, a utility sink and -overspill storage. For those without the luxury of a -separate utility space, another option is to have a mix of built-in under-counter storage to hide the essentials, and -free-standing pieces to add character. The kitchen company deVOL, beloved of the style set (its client list includes Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher, Pearl Lowe and Zoe Ball), has noted more and more customers opting for free-standing furniture to mix in with their fitted cabinetry.

"We've always loved the free-standing, trad-itional painted kitchen, with separate pantries and butchers' blocks," says the company's creative director, Helen Parker. "We're seeing the -simple look returning too: fewer -fitted cupboards, less gadgetry, but money spent on really good cupboards and appliances. This way of laying out a kitchen is old-style, easy and convivial - and it simply doesn't go out of fashion."

Ireland's approach is to opt for -minimal, unobtrusive fitted cabinetry - for example, around the sink areaIreland's approach is to opt for -minimal, unobtrusive fitted cabinetry - for example, around the sink areaCredit: Kathryn Ireland

Parker has put that into practice in her own home, where the kitchen is a mix of fitted and unfitted furniture. On one side of the room, built-in -cupboards surround the butler sink, while on the other, a free-standing stove is flanked by a vintage chest and sideboard, above which hangs a wall-mounted shelving rack.

Pots and pans hang from a brass rail fitted to the ceiling; the toaster is out on the worktop, rather than hidden away; and, like Ireland, Parker has opted for a farmhouse table rather than an island, surrounded by Thonet bentwood chairs for a "bar-cum-restaurant" look. Alternatively, a recent kitchen by designers Blakes shows that a free-standing arrangement doesn't have to have a -completely farmhouse-style look. In this case, the kitchen, which is in a Grade I listed house, was moved into what had been a reception room, so it had to be mainly free-standing to comply with the listed-building regulations.

While there is a run of low-level cabinetry around the sink, the central island, which incorporates the hob, is free-standing, as are the -vintage pantry -cupboard and two bespoke storage cupboards made to fit into the arched alcoves. In this case, the island is on legs - a good way to incorporate -storage while avoiding the solid, monolithic look.

Kathryn Ireland's tips for designing a freestanding kitchen (without it looking a mess) 

  • The more pieces of furniture you can reuse, the better: there's so much stuff already on this planet. You can find great things at flea markets, which you can upcycle by stripping or painting them, or adding new handles.

    Then you can have something made by a local carpenter or cabinetmaker, to fit in with your second-hand pieces.

  • Dispense with eye-level cabinetry and add open shelving instead. Personally, I need to see what I've got; once something goes into a cabinet, unless I'm using it every day I'll forget all about it.
  • Pare down your kitchen equipment, and decide what you really need. If you're not using that bread oven that looked fabulous 10 years ago, get rid of it.

    I think this "more more more" mentality is over; if you only keep what you really need and use, that will minimise the amount of cabinet space that's required.

  • A good way to save on budget is to fit shelves below the worktop and hang a curtain, rather than having cabinets and drawers fitted. You can wash curtains easily, and they're decorative too. I always like to add pattern and colour to a room.
  • I would spend money on a good stove and save elsewhere; you really don't need to spend a lot of money on the sink or the fridge.

    I'm a big Aga fan, and I've just got a bright yellow Lacanche stove for a client project in the Cotswolds; the colour is so unexpected and individual, and it's pleasing. I like going into a room that makes me feel happy.

Is it the end for the kitchen island?

A central island unit remains a popular choiceA central island unit remains a popular choiceCredit: Blakes Camberwell

In short, not really: kitchen companies report that a central island unit is still on the wish list for most customers (some are even seeing a trend for multiple islands, dedicated to different functions). But while an island fitted with storage cupboards and a hob has obvious practical and social benefits, it's not necessarily the best use of space (not to mention the fact that an island easily becomes an eye-level clutter magnet). 

There should be at least a metre of floor space between the island and the wall or cabinets on each side, to allow freedom of movement and a good flow around the kitchen, which isn't always possible in a smaller space.

A central wooden table like that preferred by Kathryn Ireland (and by an increasing number of fashionistas on social media) results in a lighter, more homely look, is more comfortable for dining, and can double as a workspace too. 

Another alternative is a free-standing butcher's block or a tall wooden table, which provides a useful extra work surface for food prep, as well as some storage beneath on shelves or in baskets.

Get the look...


Clockwise from top left: Three-piece copper pan set, GBP115, Argos; Lotte larder cabinet, GBP2,495, Cox & Cox; Vario toaster, GBP194.99, Dualit; Everhot 120i cooker in fandango pink, GBP11,650, Everhot; Heritage Veranda mug, GBP17, Denby


Clockwise from top left: Fridge with ice box, GBP1,039, Smeg; bread bin, GBP18, The Grey Works; stove kettle, GBP45, Garden Trading; Eddingtons Lambourn butcher's trolley, GBP599.95, John Lewis; Germaine pine table, GBP249.50, La Redoute

Kathryn Ireland's online interior-design course, Artfully Edited Interiors, is available via Create Academy