Honolulu-based interior designer Shaolin Low shares her secrets to creating a “vacay mode” bedroom with modern-tropical style.

Shaolin Low in Hawaiian tropical design bedroom
Bethany Suarez

Shaolin Low had to leave her hometown Honolulu for a spell to realize it was where she was meant to be. She studied in London, earned a public relations degree at the University of Florida, and worked in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before she made her way back home to Oahu.

“I am a city girl through and through and spent my 20s all over, but I would always find myself coming back to Hawaii,” says Low. “After traveling, I just realized home is where the heart is and ultimately, I would want to raise a family in Hawaii.”

Try as she might to pursue a career as an event planner, design was in her DNA, and it was another part of her upbringing that kept luring her back in. Her family is in the construction and design business, and fate tends to get its way.

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“I’m third generation—on both sides—in construction and design,” she says. “So, it was definitely more of a calling than a conscious decision.”

So, in 2016, she started her own interior design business.

Today, Low is a go-to design source for locals who appreciate her polished and colorful style, and Airbnb owners who know their guests are craving modern tropical vibes that feel clean and contemporary without tipping the scales toward kitsch. Her strategy: Invest in quality, neutral furniture that has a coastal, clean look, and then layer in accent pieces, like affordable art and textiles, for some “Hawaiian Punch.”

Shaolin low Hawaiian design sunset colors
A basket installation and textiles with warm, sunset colors are easy bedroom upgrades.

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“Furniture is definitely an important part to setting the tone, style, and vibe of the room,” says Low. “You want to stick with rattan, cane, or light oak, and stay in the white-washed, light wooden family to keep the overall tone light and bright. ‘Tropical’ used to be defined by darker woods like koa or monkeypod. The ‘modern’ part of ‘modern tropical’ means lightening it up.”

Shaolin low Hawaiian interior design bedroom
Low is drawn to graphic wall art with a collage and line-drawn spirit.

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“I like to keep the big pieces neutral so that I can use the other parts of the room to really go all out, but not feel too committed if they get ruined or if I want a change in a couple of years,” says Low. “I think this is where you can go more ‘trendy’ with your look/feel and not break the bank.”

desk and floating shelves Shaolin Low Hawaiian design
Hand-painted ceramic plates, tiny pots, and books fill these floating shelves in the corner of a bedroom over a simple desk.

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Here, Low shares a shopping list of some of her favorite items to furnish a bedroom with bold color and pattern, and furniture pieces that bring some island energy to a landlocked space or coastal hideaway.

Get the Look

Start with Wicker and Caned Basics

While traditional tropical decor was heavy on dark woods, the modern version is much lighter. The pale wood and cane bed available at Burke Decor is a great example.

Burke Décor Sydney Bed, Queen, $1,899

Add a Nightstand

An equally light nightstand—to place a lamp in a cheery color and some fresh or dried tropical blooms—is a must.

Made Goods Nightstand, $2,200

… And a Curvy Reading Chair

A comfortable reading chair, like this June chair available at Scout and Nimble, is a must for a cozy corner.

Four Hands June Chair, $1,599

Hang Some Floral Art with Taste and Style

Art doesn’t need to be original—or expensive—to add color and beauty to a room. Low splurges on high quality furniture and adds playful, inexpensive accents that can be changed when the mood strikes.

Anthropologie Tropical Hibiscus Wall Art, $348

Create a Statement Wall

“I love wallpaper and it’s honestly one of the easiest ways to get a pop in your room and automatically set the tone for the space,” says Low. “This monstera print gives tropical modern vibes.”

TropicalWorkshop's Monstera Wallpaper, $51-$105

Take It Easy

Nothing says “vacay mode” like a great napping spot, like this Picnic Goods daybed.

Moroccan Trellised Rattan Daybed, $1,698

Think Big, with Pattern and Color

Pick a single wall and go for it, covering the area with a splashy, color-saturated pattern.

XXLwallpaper, $38-$427

Choose Accessories with Tropical Flair

Low likes to hang a cluster of rattan mirrors in unique shapes to create a wall installation with island style.

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