ISLANDS hold center stage in kitchens today in many ways. They have become marvels of ingenuity and convenience and have grown in size, complexity, and kitchen-planning importance.
Hundreds of kitchen designers have discovered that they can conveniently anchor more and more kitchen chores on a center island. So islands have become step-saving cooking centers, bake centers, all-purpose work centers, and homes for such special appliances as microwave ovens, icemakers, dishwashers, and cooktops of various kinds.
Some provide two sinks and plenty of extra counter space for couples who cook together. As gourmet cooking and at-home entertaining take more people into the kitchen for longer periods of time, islands invite guests to look on or help with preparation or cleanup.
They also serve as room dividers, separating cooking areas from dining or living spaces in large, open kitchens.
Most islands manage to provide additional places to cook, eat, and clean up, and also more drawers, cabinets, and bins for storage. Many include snack bars, serving counters, and glide-out shelves.
An island can make an unwieldy or poorly arranged kitchen more efficient by putting work surfaces in the middle, where they can be reached from all directions. A small island mounted on casters can also be easily moved to different work stations around the kitchen.
Custom-made islands, especially planned by kitchen designers to suit the needs of individual clients, are the most costly. One woman who was planning her own kitchen remake said she had clipped and saved articles on kitchen design for years and had also analyzed exactly how she and her family used their kitchen. Out of such careful consideration came a new kitchen and kitchen island that exactly met their specifications.
Many simple butcher-block islands are put together by do-it-yourself craftsmen working in their own workshops. A number of leading kitchen cabinet manufacturers, including St. Charles, Quaker Maid, and Yorktowne, now also offer manufactured kitchen islands to complement their lines of wall cabinets.
Each year, kitchens displayed at the National Association of Home Builders show offer innovative ways to put together kitchens.
As an example, the 18-by-12-foot ''City Kitchen,'' designed this year by New Orleans architect Ronald Katz for Whirlpool Corporation and Better Homes & Gardens magazine, is termed ''a kitchen for the '80s.'' It has the look and feel of the future and a color scheme of white with gray accents. It illustrates the versatility and glamour of kitchen islands.
More than giving an extra working surface, this island incorporates a convertible down-draft cooktop, storage drawers along the front edge, and additional cabinets in the back. It also functions as a convenient eating area ample enough to seat six people.
Glass block with rear fluorescent lighting is used on the front of the island's pedestal base, giving a soft, dramatic glow. A recessed skylight over the island lets in plenty of daylight. The skylight is also surrounded by chrome fixtures using ordinary showcase bulbs for flooding the island with light at night.
Barry A. Berkus, a Santa Barbara, Calif., architect who heads Berkus Group Architects and who is a special consultant to Whirlpool, has been refining the kitchen island concept for years, giving it ever more space and importance in his designs.
Mr. Berkus says his designs are geared to today's changing life styles. Many of them emphasize the kitchen as a living center - using energy-efficient appliances and featuring solar heating, indoor greenhouses, skylights, and glass walls.
The 61/2-by-9-foot kitchen island designed by Mr. Berkus for Whirlpool is topped with marble and includes a cleanup center, a baking center, an icemaker, and a pair of butcher-block snack counters with pull-up stools.
The cleanup center includes a sink and dishwasher. The baking center includes a mixer that springs, by the touch of a hand, from its own storage compartment to counter height.
Today kitchen islands range from chunky antique butcher blocks on legs to rather grandiloquent modern versions that feature everything, including the kitchen sink. Their appearance may be getting more glamorous, but their purpose is, as always, practical.