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How the Victorian Cook’s Table has Evolved in Purpose and Design

The kitchen island has long been the centrepiece of the modern kitchen, a place to unwind, entertain and enjoy the company of others. However, this has not always been the case. The evolution of the kitchen island reflects how modern kitchens have transformed over the 20th century and how our lives have changed over each decade.

Known as the cook’s table in the Victorian era, this was a functional piece of furniture that took centre stage back of house. In those days, domestic activity was hidden from visitors and the household ‘behind the green baize door’ – the dividing line between servants and master. A substantial table as a feature has recently had a revival in popularity within the modern home, with many opting for the quintessential wooden table over the contemporary kitchen island. Here we explore two styles of kitchen table design: the kitchen island and the cook’s table, to showcase their purpose and design.

The Origins of the Cook’s Table

The modern-day kitchen is considered the heart of the home, a place to entertain, relax and indulge in good food and company. A kitchen’s association with convivial hospitality and family life is relatively new. Since the 1800s, the kitchen has not only evolved in style and design but has also relocated within the home. Kitchens were not built for entertaining, but served as functional spaces for food preparation and serving, often located at the back of the house away from the parlour and dining room, where the guests could be found. They were often dark, noisy spaces with a firewood stove that bellowed out clouds of thick smoke.

The wealthiest families held large banquets during the Victorian era which required armies of domestic staff as well as space to accommodate them out of sight from the guests. Unlike today, guests would certainly not gather in the kitchen so there was no need for elaborate decoration in this area of the house. Kitchens therefore were very basic, characterised by simple but solid wooden  furniture – free-standing pieces that were used for storage, a cook’s table for food preparation, and often as a dining table for the servants.

Victorian country house kitchens were furnished by local craftsmen who designed cook’s tables and made purposeful pieces of furniture that were handed down through generations. Typically, the cook’s table was simply but expertly crafted out of pine, oak, elm, and a variety of fruitwoods often sourced locally from the estate itself. The timber would be polished or oiled to highlight the natural textures and features of the wood and to protect it from the rigours of daily use. Alternatively, some furniture was colour-washed or painted using primitive paints made from readily available materials such as buttermilk and eggs combined with earth-coloured dyes.

As cook’s tables can be both practical and beautiful, bringing a period feel to a modern household, they are an increasingly popular feature of the modern country kitchen.

The Rise of the Kitchen Island

The evolution of the kitchen island was first seen in the 1930s, shortly after the Great Depression. The concept of a kitchen being a social space as well as a practical one emerged from the idea that middle-class families should look after the home without live-in help. ‘Open plan’ living where living and dining areas were allowed to spill into one another became the norm. By removing the divide, the kitchen began to have meaning within the family home. The kitchen island became increasingly more important as a way of homemakers embracing a modern, ‘open plan’ way of living.

Advances in technology and the contribution of modern equipment meant that the kitchen was no longer synonymous with back-breaking work. The new workstation was more than just a place to prepare and serve food; homemakers began inviting others to sit around the kitchen island. The island became an even more central part of the kitchen in the 1960s, with the television changing its function into a space where one could practice culinary skills, experiment with new recipes, and entertain guests.

In modern homes, each kitchen island design can be tailored to suit any interior and can be customised to complement the signature style in your home. While homeowners may choose to have a freestanding island, many choose to build a large space with cupboard doors, draws and integrated handles. Kitchen islands also offer opportunities to experiment with materials and finishes, including oak, granite, marble, gloss wood or glass. Some designers choose to mix materials for a show-stopping centrepiece, others use neutral colours and materials for a sleek finish. As the kitchen island is the heart of the home, seating is an important feature. Bar stools are often a feature providing appropriate seating to enjoy a quick breakfast or to provide comfort when preparing food.

The kitchen island has advanced tremendously, incorporating more modern features, including wine coolers, induction hobs, boiling taps, integrated dishwashers and plug-in power and lighting.

The Resurgence of the Cook’s Table

The cook’s table has recently had a resurgence. Once the preserve of Victorian period homes,  the idea of a multi purpose and central table is gaining popularity in a wide range of settings. Once a desirable piece, the kitchen island is now sometimes seen as intrusive and inflexible, appearing incompatible with traditional Victorian kitchen design. While the cook’s table would have once been hidden out of sight, today it offers an elegant and less intrusive alternative – equally as practical as the kitchen island whilst providing a charming aesthetic with its history and authenticity.

In keeping with the original cook’s table design, experts in Victorian kitchen design can recreate the detailed craftsmanship of the traditional cook’s table. They are typically fitted with elegant brass pull handles, ornate oak legs, sleek wooden draws for culinary implements and a broad stave oak top with an inset piece of granite for hot cooking utensils. Bespoke cook’s tables also come in a variety of finishes from oiled wood, coloured paint finishes including duck egg greens and petrol blues or more rustic exposed wood finishes. Freestanding wooden stools can also be added to ensure that the central table remains the heart of the home.

With a wealth of experience and knowledge of period architectural detail and cabinetry, bespoke joinery experts possess the specialist skills to design and integrate a traditional piece like a cook’s table into a period home. If you are considering incorporating a traditional cook’s table for your country home, contact an expert in luxury bespoke kitchen design to start planning your dream space.

Patton Bork
the authorPatton Bork