How to Decorate in 5 Different Tropical Asian Interior Design Styles

an island with cottages and beach chairs
Photo by Vincent Gerbouin on

If you love the tropics and fresh, nature-filled interiors that are elegant and soothing, you’re going to love these Asian styles from the tropics. From far eastern Taiwan to Vietnam and Bali, there are well known styles and also a few looks which might be new to you.

There are two boards for each cultural style along with some sample color palettes, plants and art included on the boards. We also threw in some keywords to get the creative juices flowing.

We look forward to breaking these styles down further individually in the future with more detailed examples for finish, furniture and decor choices. Enjoy!

1. Vietnamese Style – “Artfully restrained East-meets-West”

Vietnamese style can be described as ranging from moody and earthy with a strong Indo-Chinese cultural vibe, to a more minimalist tropical style.

In the more traditional expression it bears quite a few similarities to Chinese style, but tends to go for darker accents, like black lacquer. Terracotta brick and tile is often mixed with French cafe furniture and plenty of wicker and rattan. The black lacquer accents come down to the primary hue of classic Vietnamese lacquer which, along with Japanese and Chinese furniture finishes, gained popularity in Europe as early as the sixteenth century.

Vietnamese style is lighter and fresher than the Indonesian and Malaysian styles, as you’ll see, but still not as minimal as far eastern styles like Taiwanese.

Vietnamese style interior design keywords:

Artfully restrained – This is a style which tends to favor regularity, ninety degree angles and open space.

Articulation – The culture is vividly expressed through panels, screens and antique pieces mixed in with the new.

Elegance – The style is often simple and elegant with artful touches.

Finesse – There is attention to detail and, when not minimalist in nature, the style can often include patterned and woven elements or well-crafted latticework.

Refinement – Vietnamese style has been highly refined over many years of fine furniture making tradition.

Interwoven – Because of its cultural mixed heritage Vietnamese styles is not afraid to include modern and European elements.

Suave serenity – Vietnamese interiors have a way of looking ‘handsome’ while feeling peaceful at the same time.

The depth of calm – The deep tones and vibrant hues are intoxicating, calming and deeply relaxing.

2. Malay Style – “Bold and culturally-rooted luxury”

Malaysian style is heavy on the hardwood, and tends to be bold and dramatic. Deep, earthy tones in warm, ark wood finishes are preferred. There is strong emphasis on quality and craftsmanship. Furniture is solid and built to last. Malaysians embrace the tropical flowers, fruits and lush flora in their homes and gardens.

There is a definite colonial vibe to a lot of Malay design, not surprising since they have plenty of European cultural influences from trading with the Dutch East India company in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Malay design is heady and unforgettable. It tends to remind me of the British campaign style, usually associated with Africa and India. This is evident with the mosquito netting and tailored European upholstery in Malaysian design, but while it share some similarity to other colonial styles, this is a style deeply rooted in its own cultural heritage.

There are strong similarities to other “Indo-Chinese” styles such as Vietnamese and Indonesian, but the Chinese detail tends to be more prominent in Malay. Keep in mind that a third of Malaysians are of Chinese ethnicity.

Malaysian style interior design keywords

Boldly balanced – Malaysian architectural details and furniture both tend to be solid and structured, with bold profiles.

Culturally informed – It’s easy to get a sense of the Malay aesthetic, even with the modern versions of the style. Malaysian style does “eclectic” incredibly well. It is often exemplary of Asian transitional design.

Warm and vibrant – The finishes, woods and decor accents all tend to be warm, in keeping with the equatorial climate and the outdoor jungle aesthetic.

Contrasting – The dark hardwood used extensively in Malaysian design tend to be off set with cream, beige and white walls and ceilings.

Inviting – I find Malaysian style incredibly inviting and homey. There is emphasis on comfort as well as style.

Rich and celebratory – Malaysian style tends to include rich accents, like ivory, gold and copper. These work incredibly well with the warm tropical woods. Malay people celebrate their culture in their homes and public spaces.

Relaxed formal – Malaysian style appears stately because it is heavy and solid, but it is not stuffy or overly precious.

Calm – Like Vietnamese style, Malay style is calming due to its deeply grounded nature.

3. Balinese Style – “Ethnic balmy beach vibes”

No list of tropical Asian styles would feel complete without this crowd pleasing favorite!

“Bali” style can be thought of as the ultimate Asian hospitality style. Because the island of Bali has been a cult favorite of travelers and surfers for decades, local designers have applied the traditional Indonesian and Balinese elements of their style to a modern, western coastal aesthetic, with excellent results.

While some resorts go with the more traditional vibe and include incredible architectural features like the Balinese bungalow roofing, others go for a lighter, more laissez-faire look. This is another style which has good contrast between warm natural accents and a clean, white backdrop.

The Balinese hospitality style tends to incorporate a good bit of woven, wicker-type furniture, including lots of rattan, baskets and grass thatch detailing. Although you can find similarities to the Indonesian and Malaysian style, everything feels lighter and fresher in Balinese style. The result is a more casual, beach-going vibe.

Balinese interior design style keywords

Bold – Strong design statements are welcomed in Balinese design

Textured – Balinese style plays with multiple textures through textiles, grass weaves, rugs, wooden slats and rough stone.

Soothing – This ultimate tropical beach style can’t help but feel like vacation.

Warm – The dominant tones are warm, with just enough white to cool it all down.

Sophisticated island vibe – It’s beach-y without being too “bum” (casual).

Chunky and woven – from occasional furniture to whimsical woven decor, the style tends to be boldly tactile.

Naturalistic – Where natural elements aren’t available clever mimicry and naturalistic nature inspired details add to the vibe.

Fresh – Just enough culture and greenery keeps the modern vibe playful and fun.

Intricate – Balinese style doesn’t shy away from pattern and detailing, but the colorways are complementary and monotone.

Staycation vibes – Vacation, staycation, you don’t need to go anywhere when you can hang out here!

If you’re interested in how to recognize the five most important design styles according to Design Baddie, check out this article next.

4. Singapore Style – “Urban Asian vintage charm”

Singapore style has a distinctive vintage charm about it. While, theoretically, it is closely related to Malaysian style, Singapore is necessarily urban by default. Thus, you could say it has a cosmopolitan vibe, more like that of Hong Kong. The Malay hardwood furnishings give way to more modern pieces, including upholstered and metal framed furniture styles.

Singaporean style tends to include more glass, metal and ceramic finishes. They also enjoy sleek processed stone like marble and granite in rich, smooth finishes. There is high contrast in the style overall, and a seeming preference for cooler jewel tones, like green and blue.

Floral prints as well as fresh flowers and small luxury details abound in this tropical city style. Ceramic tile and lacquered wood mixed in with mosaics and vintage pieces add to the visual interest. Vintage-inspired Singaporean style is a very eclectic blend of old and new, east and west, warm and cool.

Singaporean interior design style keywords

Jewel-tone punctuation – Singaporean style adds crisp emerald and turquoise-blue gem tones to the warm, earthy and white tones. Like Vietnamese style, there are often black accents.

Warm-cool contrast – Singaporeans in the city tend to prefer to cool things down by balancing cool tones with the warm woods.

Fresh vintage – Fresh, tropical flowers remind you that you are in an equatorial climate.

Bright – Letting the light in is important when you live in small spaces, like city apartments and townhouses.

Contemporary with vintage accents – Singaporean style is mostly modern, with some eclectic thrown in.

Clean – In keeping with the Chinese aesthetic, it tends to be clean and orderly.

Pretty and functional – Singaporean style is pretty more than it is handsome like Malay. At the same time it is highly functional and practical; not unlike Scandinavian style.

Visually interesting – Singaporean style at heart tells a story of a city rooted in vibrant history and culture. A crossroads at the heart of Asia, as they like to say.

5. Taiwanese Style – “Japanese-inspired urban contemporary”

Taiwan, where I have lived for twenty years now, is a tropical subtropical island with Pacific indigenous roots, Chinese migrant and Japanese colonial heritage. The predominant style is decidedly east Asian, favoring clean lines, minimal, built-in fittings and modern or transitional Asian furnishing styles. The color palette is usually neutral or white. Light woods, ceramic tile and local stone are common finishes. Artwork and decor, too, tends to be minimal.

“Life Of Health And Sustainability” (LOHAS) is an acronym used by many local design publishers to refer to a lifestyle which puts nature, personal health and wellness first and foremost. The idea is that by using less, but keeping designs compact, streamlined and functional, a better mental state and quality of life can be achieved. You only need to look at the examples below to see how both Japanese and Danish aesthetics have influenced Taiwanese design.

Taiwanese interior design style keywords

Streamlined – Taiwanese style, like the Japanese from where it gets much of its aesthetic influence, tends to be minimalist. This is a good approach when apartments in cities like Taipei tend to be small and expensive.

Modern and eclectic – Taiwanese style shares mixed western and eastern aesthetics to produce a very modern-looking style. Look for cultural elements such as transitional Chinese style furniture and the ubiquitous Taiwanese tea sets. Taiwan’s high mountains, the tallest in Asia outside of the Himalayas, are home to the world’s best oolong tea.

Natural – Light, natural tones make the space feel bigger and are more relaxing.

Rectilinear – Both Taiwanese and Japanese styles tend to have a lot of right angles and few curves.

Structural – There is a great emphasis on mill-work fit-outs in Taiwanese interior design. Clever storage and multi-purpose furniture is common in design for small spaces. They also really like their dropped ceilings and recessed lighting.

Neat – The goal of the perfect Taiwanese apartment is to get every bit of the traditional clutter out of sight and claim some of that precious cubic real estate back.

Mono or duo chromatic – The Taiwanese are very color averse in their homes and if you rent here you will always need to paint your apartment back to white before returning it to your landlord.

Not to worry: Neutral tones are calming and works with this aesthetic exceptionally well.

Note also the Taiwanese plant varieties, including tropical frangipani and orchids, as well as traditional Chinese choices like potted bamboo and money trees.

If you loved this article, you’ll love our super popular article on the 30 major interior design styles, an ultimate list with a mood board for each style.

Stay tuned for future posts where we break down these styles individually and many others. Don’t forget to sign up for our mailing list if you’d like to learn more about other exotic, international and historical styles. We’ll also keep you up to date on how to get started decorating and designing with the latest virtual tools. Simply drop your email below.

Happy decorating and designing!



Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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