I just got back from our summer family vacation to Hawaii. We visited the island of Maui, and I was struck by the variety of terrain — from the uplands farms to the beaches to the desert-like areas on the dry side of the island. Maui has 12 microclimates, including some of the driest and wettest places on earth. The flowers are almost garishly beautiful, the air smells like sweet fruits, and there are essentially no bugs. It is indeed paradise. So, how could I not be inspired to dive into Hawaiian interior design with a pina colada in hand?
Hawaii Bound: A Not So Very Brady Vacation
The last time I’d been to Hawaii was over 30 years ago, in my early teens. My sister and I had to be forcibly dragged there because we thought we were “too cool” for a place like Hawaii. (The Brandy Bunch family vacationed there, after all.) The double Brady Bunch episode reruns were the full extent of my knowledge of the Hawaiian islands. In pure teenage fashion, I thought it was a “dorky” show and thus a “dorky” trip.
My mind changed when we landed in Oahu, and I was given a lai to wear and greeted by beautifully kind people. I took in the scenery, ate fruit that tasted like candy, and was blown over by the concept of a place with such beautiful weather that the lobbies of the hotels didn’t even need walls! My sister and I ran free on the beaches and markets alongside Japanese tourists. This was during the 1980s, so Japan was enjoying an economic boom and also indulging in tropical vacations.
For a young girl from South Austin, the whole experience was new and magical. This unfamiliar culture was completely different from what I knew in Texas — from the scenery to the food to the people. I was amazed that such a place even existed. My kids are now in their mid-teens and much more worldly than I was in the 1980s. However, they were also struck by the differences between where we live in central Texas and the beaches and farms of Maui.
Spoiler alert. Unlike the Bradys, I never found any cursed tiki amulets during my time on the islands.
Hawaiian Interior Design: A Mix of Non-Western and Western Elements
When I came home from my trip, I was greeted with a pile of mail containing this fantastic story about a Hawaiian mid-century modern home in Domino magazine. Seeing it had me missing the days we spent lounging beachside, craving a piña colada, and wanting to dive deeper into Hawaiian interior design styles. Hawaii is uniquely positioned between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. As a result, Hawaiian architecture is a mix of non-Western and Western elements. On the islands, you see regal Colonial buildings next to International Style skyscrapers and vernacular thatched roofs adjacent to mid-century modern homes. Of course, we can’t forget to mention the lore of tiki culture.
Non-Western: Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and Polynesian Design
Non-Western elements of Hawaiian style include Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and Polynesian design influences. You can see these aspects in the bright colors that reflect the local flora and fauna, natural materials, thatched roofs, intricate tiki carvings, and open concept spaces that eliminate exterior walls altogether. All this traveling and looking at architecture has me thinking more and more about non-Western interiors and architecture.
Pre-Columbian and Oceanic art and culture are styles I have less familiarity with beyond my undergraduate art survey course. However, they hold a lot of interest for me, and their design elements keep coming up in recent popular design magazines. These forms stand out to a “Western-trained eye” because they simply aren’t things we see on a daily basis. America has few examples of non-Western designs outside Hawaii and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House. The stacked carved block construction of his Myan Revival-themed LA estate is a far cry from traditional Georgian architecture that dominates the East Coast. Experiences with these forms opened my eyes to other ways of seeing things, which allows for more creative takes in my home designs.
Western: Colonial, Mid-century Modern, and “Tiki” Design
While Hawaii feels like a world apart, it is still part of the United States and has many Westernized elements entwined with its architectural styles. For example, early Colonial structures dot the streets. Additionally, mid-century modern designs found a place on the islands as their layouts lend themselves to indoor-outdoor living. And while non-Western art forms inspire tiki designs, tiki culture is a very American invention. After World War II, there was a new interest in the South Seas, and tiki culture became a craze that swept the United States in the form of sugary drinks and kitschy decor. The islands’ position and distinctive environments result in a unique blending of non-Western and Western styles.
Artists on Vacation: Seeking Tropical Inspiration
There are stories of artists escaping their Western world to immerse themselves in different cultures. Gauguin and Tretchikoff are two examples of artists who embraced the South Seas for inspiration.
Paul Gauguin is a French Impressionist artist who set out to live in Tahiti in the 1890s, using the landscape and his new neighbors as his subjects. His goal was to abandon the materiality of Western civilization and find something more real (or at least different). He became well known for his style and use of color, inspiring other Fauvist artists like Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec. Comparatively, Gauguin’s work is deliberately “non-French” in appearance.
Vladimir Tretchikoff is a self-taught Russian artist who was greatly influenced by his early life in Southeast Asia. During World War II, he met Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson (Lenka), who became his lover and one of his most famous models. He created renowned works during his lifetime, including his painting Chinese Girl, also known as The Green Lady. While he garnered commercial success among the wave of tiki culture, he was criticized for being overly kitsch. However, it’s rumored that he has been one of the world’s richest artists to date.
Hawaiian Design Elements: A Focus on Island Life
It was refreshing to see something new in the environment of Hawaii, and it reminded me of how connected we are to the design of our shelters. Home designs arise out of a need for comfort and some control over the weather and the elements of nature. However, the need for walls becomes absurd when nature is as gentle as it is in the Hawaiian islands!
I look forward to incorporating a new perspective into my upcoming designs, taking cues from the Hawaiian use of wood, indoor-outdoor connections, and color.
At the very least, I may just prepare a piña colada as I work on my design sketches.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.