Tropical Style Defined

Get inspired by these tropical interior design ideas.

By Lisa Frederick

Tropical style isn't about hard-and-fast design rules—it's equal parts local custom and state of mind. It springs from the part of the world that sits between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and because it spans so many different countries and cultures, its nuances are many and diverse. The region's strong seafaring tradition brought settlers from far-flung points of the globe who added their own native traditions to create a multilayered, arresting blend.

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The Basics

Dramatic Contemporary Living Room
Tara Seawright

Although some people think of tropical style as cartoonish and over the top (pink flamingos, jungle murals), it's just the opposite. Tropical decor is vibrant but not garish, and its lively overtones are grounded in dignity. The details may vary between countries and continents, but common threads include exotic top notes, an emphasis on the outdoors, and a laid-back approach to living.

These designer rooms embody tropical decor:  

Get the Look


Ready for a virtual vacation to the tropics? Go for these signature elements.

Textural weaves. The natural fibers of the tropics are anything but dainty. Think cane, rattan, bamboo, jute, and pandan. Traditionally, these coarsely woven materials take the form of area rugs, occasional chairs, baskets and wall coverings, but experiment with less typical applications: cabinet inserts, headboards and footboards, ceiling treatments. 

Tropical woods. No pine, oak, or birch here—this style calls for species with a more exotic flavor. Woods indigenous to the tropics include rosewood, mahogany, and teak, in addition to less common types such as bubinga, ebony, and kingwood. Don't worry about matching finishes; a layered, collected effect suits this style to a T.

China Seas

Light and air. When you think of a tropical home, there's a good chance you picture sunlight streaming in and breezes wafting through. Because of its ties to warm locales, tropical style puts an emphasis on indoor-outdoor spaces, windows thrown wide, and plenty of light to soak up. Eschew heavy curtains in favor of rattan blinds or Bermuda shutters; don't crowd the floor and walls with too many objects; and consider adding skylights, sliding patio doors, and other features that bring the outdoors in.

Sheer, floaty fabrics. From mosquito netting draped over a canopy bed to thin linen draperies fluttering beside French doors, tropical textiles feel cool, lightweight, and breezy. You can't go wrong by sticking with solids in pale colors such as white, cream, and taupe, but dashes of bold prints such as banana leaves and colorful flowers accent the look nicely.  

Plenty of plants. Nothing evokes a rainforest or jungle setting like splashy foliage and flora. Group together potted palms, aspidistra (also called cast-iron plant), anthurium, dieffenbachia, or that old stalwart, the ficus tree. Even a single amaryllis bloom can have a luminous, magical effect. 

  • If you like Tropical style, you may love Plantation style design, as well. 

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