How to design a freestanding kitchen: cabinets, islands and larders

With freestanding furniture being well-suited to a kitchen in an older home, Period Living looks at what to include and what to consider when designing this kind of space

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Offering flexibility in the most important room of the house, freestanding kitchens may today be a rarer sight in our homes than fitted designs, but, until the latter part of the 19th century, they were the only choice.

The kitchen as we know it evolved during the 18th century, when running water was first made available in homes, and stoves were invented. Mass-produced iron goods, such as hobs, made cooking much easier, and baking became popular. Prior to this, kitchens were ramshackle, often multipurpose spaces, where pots and pans were tidied away so the room could be used as a sleeping or eating space.

Now the epitome of smart design, our “engine rooms” are not only required to be as functional and practical as commercial kitchens, but are also used for entertaining, homeworking and family time.

Why is a freestanding kitchen a good choice in an old home?

  • If you are looking for authenticity, freestanding is the best choice. Old kitchens would not have had fitted kitchens so a traditional look is much more achievable with freestanding dressers, larders and wall-mounted plate racks.
  • Old homes rarely have straight walls which can complicate installing a fitted kitchen.
  • In a smaller cottage kitchen, freestanding furniture can offer versatility and allow you to rearrange the space as needed.
  • A fitted kitchen will set you back a few thousand — freestanding items are more affordable and can be mixed and matched for a high-end kitchen on a budget. You can also source secondhand and antique items for a truly unique kitchen.
  • Freestanding furniture can be moved if a space is remodelled, or even taken with you if you move. This makes it worth investing in quality pieces.

What pieces should you look for to create your kitchen?

Larders are also becoming the mainstay of a freestanding design, to add to the traditional ‘cook’s kitchen’ feel. Companies are adapting these to include hideaway storage areas for kettles and toasters, for clutter-free worktops, or even fitting them with marble surfaces inside for pastry making or as hidden food preparation areas.

Vintage Welsh dressers are perfect if you have a big enough space. The shelves can be used to display your favourite kitchenware, while the cupboards provide space to hide away clutter. Open shelving or plate racks can be added elsewhere for additional storage. Wood is a classic choice, but stainless steel versions create a low-maintenance, industrial look.

A moveable island or butcher’s block can be used to increase workspace as needed. When prepping food, a surface that can be moved from the sink to cooker can be very useful.

Popular accessories in freestanding kitchens include towel rails and chopping board trays, cleverly stored on island units. More recently, customers have been specifying wine racks to make this area of the room more of a hub for entertaining instead of being purely functional.

Sourcing a reclaimed butcher’s block

Authentic and with plenty of original features, a reclaimed butcher’s block will have a unique character and patina that you just don’t get with a new one. The wood gets better with age: some people oil them to keep them looking pristine, some will use chopping boards on top to protect them, and others will just use them as intended to give them even more character.

Vintage maple wood butcher's block

Vintage maple wood tile-topped butcher’s block on a pine base, £540, The Architectural Forum

What do I need to consider?

Look for a butcher’s block that has been fairly well maintained. A lot of them have a wavy appearance and you can tell they have had a lot of use from where the meat has been cut up and then the block rubbed down to clean it afterwards.

You can get quite flat ones, too, that haven’t been used as much, but these are fairly rare. Sizes range from 2ft–6ft and they are usually 2ft wide. A lot of butchers’ blocks date from the turn of the century, usually made of maple and are built up of smaller blocks, not one solid piece.

They have iron bars running through them, which enable you to tighten them up if they start coming apart, with brackets on the corners. You should avoid a butcher’s block if it looks damp at all. Some online sellers only show images of the top and you can’t see what the underneath looks like where there could be missing pieces or signs of rot, so always check all sides before purchasing.

Large 19th-century French butcher's block

Large 19th-century French butcher’s block/kitchen island, £1,450,

How do I maintain it?

  • Allow a new block to dry out completely in a warm environment before restoring it.
  • You may need to re-tighten the block as it dries out.
  • Patch any gaps by glueing in wedges of wood, cutting down and sanding to fill the gaps.
  • Oil with linseed, walnut or almond oil once a month.
  • Wipe down with a clean, damp cloth after use and avoid use of harsh detergents which will dry the wood out.

Mid-century maple butcher's block

Mid-century solid maple butcher’s block on a painted pine base, £345, The Antique Kitchen

What should I expect to pay for a reclaimed butcher’s block?

This will depend on size and quality. Expect to pay around:

  • £450-£500 for a good quality, 2ftx2ft block fully refurbished.
  • For a much larger block, up to 6ftx2-2½ft, you could be looking at around £2,000.
  • If it’s especially flat and in good condition it could go for around the £2,200 mark – bear in mind that they are an investment piece.

Antique waxed and painted butcher's block

Antique waxed and painted butcher’s block with slatted shelves on base, £2,495, UK Architectural Antiques

Words: Daniel Newton who is part of the team at UKAA in Staffordshire

UK Architectural Antiques (UKAA) hand-make bases to any specification, normally with slatted shelves or drawers, which can be painted a bespoke colour, for example in Farrow & Ball or Fired Earth shades, to match your kitchen scheme.

How to design a freestanding kitchen

Designing a kitchen is a very emotive and personal process. Visit showrooms and collect images of what you like from websites and magazines for ideas.

A freestanding kitchen is very easy to design yourself. Some people will opt for a few fitted units, and supplement the kitchen with freestanding pieces over time. This is a great way to spread the cost over time.

If you do design your own kitchen, try an online tool (such as the one available through The Freestanding Kitchen Company). Be sure to measure the space thoroughly beforehand, including where doors and windows are located.

Consider how the room is going to be used, too — is it a space for entertaining as well as cooking in? It’s also a good idea to write a wishlist of priorities, highlighting which aspects of the kitchen are most important.

Colour inspiration

Grey is a continuing trend for freestanding kitchens — it’s timeless. The industry is also seeing a move towards bolder, more experimental colours, as well as individual pieces painted in contrasting shades (but if your tastes are more demure you can choose items in several shades of the same colour). One idea could be to include an island unit made from unpainted wood in the centre of the kitchen, which creates a less utilitarian look.