Four Things You Probably Don’t Know About Interior Design Styles In Hawaii

bedroom at Maui project by Stephanie Brown
The classic Hawaii style is more sophisticated than most would imagine, as interior designers Shaolin Low and Stephanie Brown explain. (Mariko Reed)

Known for its gorgeous land, stunning homes, and fun, kitschy style, living in Hawaii isn’t just different from the contiguous 48 states; it is truly like no place else in the world. The land has a unique history and culture, which is reflected in the lifestyle of the people who live there as well as the style of their homes. Still, there are many misconceptions of what Hawaiian interior design is really like. I recently spoke with two interior designers—Shaolin Low of Studio Shaolin and Stephanie Brown of Stephanie Brown Inc to learn more about their process, clear up any misconceptions, and find out what it’s like to design homes in the area.

outdoor living room in hawaii by stephanie brown

Today in Hawaii interior design, homeowners tend to favor lighter finishes when pairing with native woods. (Mariko Reed)

Hawaii-Style Isn’t Necessarily What You Think It Is

When someone talks about Hawaii homes, the first thing that may come to mind is a fun, kitschy aesthetic. While this is true to a certain extent, the classic Hawaii style is more sophisticated than most would imagine. “The classic style is Hawaii plantation feels – darker hardwoods like monkeypod, ohia or koa, large floral patterns, rattan pieces, and native artwork. There’s also a lot of Asian influence as well,” Low shares.

With various wood finishes throughout the property, this beach house overlooking Haena Bay is a great example of a classic Hawaii home.

Classic Hawaii interior design incorporates darker hardwoods like monkeypod, ohia or koa. This ocean-view house in Hanalei Bay features a range of custom koa wood details. (Hawaii Life)

“But, you rarely see this ‘classic’ style anymore. Most people are moving more toward an updated Hawaii look which is still the native woods, but in a lighter finish, an updated rattan vibe, etc,” she says.

On the other hand, Brown’s approach is to pepper in elements of this particular aesthetic. “While we’re all (too) familiar with Hawaiian-kitsch decorating from decades past, today’s more modern elements of Hawaiian style include natural textures like sisal rugs and grasscloth wallpaper, tropical plants, tropical prints (used sparingly), surfboards, and the use of tropical woods like teak, acacia, and mahogany.”

grass wallpaper headboard in a hawaii bedroom

The grasscloth wallpaper seen in this Big Island residence is a perfect example of marrying old and new design styles. (Hawaii Life)

The grasscloth wallpaper and wood window treatments at this hidden gem on the Big Island are examples of how this traditional Hawaii home has been updated. It has a perfect island feel.

The Trends Are Behind The Rest Of The United States

While Hawaii is home to many high-end and expensive properties, it’s not necessarily the trendiest place. Hawaiian homeowners like to update their properties as much as the next, but logistics—Hawaii is about 2,500 miles away from mainland USA (California)—can make it challenging to keep up with the latest looks.

hawaii beachfront homes and ocean

Hawaiian homeowners like to update their properties as much as the next, but logistics—Hawaii is about 2,500 miles away from mainland USA (California)—can make it challenging to keep up with the latest looks.

So, instead of big box stores, many Hawaiians shop locally. “Scoring a great find from a local maker, artist, or small boutique is a meaningful and exciting way to update your decor on the island,” Brown says.

But that’s not the only reason why the trends vary in Hawaii. “They are slightly different because of climate and just the indoor/outdoor, year-round, same season living that we have here. I’m seeing a lot of California/Scandinavian/Japandi/coastal vibes in our homes right now, but I think that’s kind of trending everywhere. The only difference is, I think it’s here to stay for Hawaii since we kind of live that lifestyle all the time,” says Low.

contemporary office design in maui by stephanie brown

Modern elements of today’s Hawaii style include natural textures and tropical prints used sparingly, Brown says.

Interiors Reflect Island Life

The most significant influence on Hawaii’s design trends isn’t necessarily what’s trending online or what major stores are selling, but rather an island life itself. “Life, and therefore design, in Hawaii, tends to be very casual and relaxed. There is a slow pace, and as such homes are designed to really sit and savor the moment with family and friends. For instance, evening gathering spaces are important, from breezy outdoor living and dining rooms on the ‘lanai’ to circling around a fire table in the yard,” Brown says.

colorful and bright living room interior design in hawaii by studio shaolin

Low suggests to focus on “a vibe of comfort” with soft rugs, colorful artwork and lots of plants. (Kenna Reed)

The cultural element of fire is also frequently used in Hawaii design, in everything “from tiki torches to pool-side fire bowls. Laid-back surf culture is also a popular design influence. From super-casual surf shacks to luxe homes, simply incorporating some surfboards or skateboards adds a cool beachy vibe to the space,” the interior designer says.

If you’ve been looking for a beautiful home with a large outdoor covered lanai, this exquisitely remodeled home with panoramic views in Honolulu won’t disappoint. It has plenty of outdoor space to enjoy the company of friends and family.

covered lanai at hawaii home 161 Nawiliwili Street

The lanai is a symbol of Hawaii’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle. This $2.295-million home in Honolulu takes in views of Diamond Head from its expansive poolside lanai.

Here’s How To Easily Add Hawaiian Style To Any Home

It’s easy to give your home an island feel. Brown suggests opting for beachy textures and sunny color palettes. “We love to use natural fibers for a tropical vibe, such as sisal area rugs, woven wood blinds, and breezy sheer linen drapery. Rattan and woven accents have become quite popular, so working in woven pendant lights or a lampshade can also set a more tropical tone. Water-toned accents such as sea-glass bottles, beads, and photography also bring the vibe home, without being kitschy.”

But Low insists the key is to keep it casual. “You can go to a restaurant barefoot here with no shirt, and it’s completely accepted, normal. So, if you want to bring a piece of Hawaii into your home, bring the vibe of comfort and you’re good to go. For example, deep comfy sofas for lounging, soft rugs, plants – lots of plants, colorful artwork, etc.”

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I am a writer, design expert, host of the podcast Bougie Adjacent, and comedic performer. I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of décor and design. It once took me six months to choose a soap dispenser and I can’t even remember what it looked like. I like bright prints, southern exposure and any location you can call a “village or town.” There are currently over 100 episodes of House Hunters on my DVR.