Decoding Similar Design Motifs: Coastal vs. Tropical

ProSource | 10/19/2015 | Expert Advice

Coastal and tropical both bring to mind an ocean side retreat or vacation villa. But from the lighting to the colors, fabrics, furniture and accessories, there are core differences in these two design aesthetics.

Before you decide which is for you, read on to decode the differences – and similarities – in these two popular design motifs and get to the bottom of what makes each of them unique.


Light is one of the most important considerations in a coastal design. Loads of windows let sunshine flood in. If you’re short on windows and glass doors, use ambient lighting and lamps to fake the sunshine. Window treatments in a coastal design are typically white, and always sparse and simple so as not to block natural light.

A tropical design is more concerned with the ceiling fan that provides an island breeze than the natural light, although both are strong contenders. A wide-paddle fan will provide a faux surfside breeze and the soothing rhythm of its gentle hum.


Pale is the key to a coastal palette. White, cream, beige and khaki are reminiscent of sand dunes and evoke a warm coastal setting. If you’re looking to add a bit more color, pale blue calls to mind the colors of both ocean and sky.

A tropical space, on the other hand, is vibrant and colorful. Think coral and navy, green and earthen brown.


A coastal design calls for crisp, clean fabrics that are unassuming and never stuffy. Think linen slipcovers, cotton rugs, and muslin curtain panels or floaty sheers that billow in the breeze. You can't go wrong with pure white, but washed-out pastels or tailored stripes fit with the look as well. Stay away from fabrics that are too heavily themed.

Tropical design style calls for strong, splashy prints. Patterns with tropical leaves, palm fronds and bamboo are all popular choices. Just remember to use them in moderation – too much bold color and pattern in one room can be overwhelming.


Slouchy slipcovers and gauzy drapes are perfect additions to a coastal space. The idea is to provide visitors a place where they can feel comfortable – it’s a “put your feet up, leave the high-stress workweek behind, breathe deeply and relax” vibe.

Light, weathered woods such as driftwood and blond maple are very at home – on the floor as well as furniture - in a coastal space. White painted planks and bead board are also common to a coastal setting.

In a tropical space, think natural: jute, cane and bamboo fit the bill well. The tropical design aesthetic loves texture. Look for furniture made from wicker and rattan, and round out the space with coarsely woven floor coverings.


A coastal design is easy to accessorize: just add a few touches of rope in the form of a nautical ball, drawer pulls or a picture frame for a finishing touch. And take some inspiration from your last trip to the beach. Add a simple sea glass or a few sea shells, but remember that coastal spaces should feel open and airy, so keep the accessories to a minimum.

If you’re going with a tropical design, think shutters to bring home that relaxed, island vibe. And they don’t have to cover your windows…try propping them against an interior wall to bring a bit of the tropical feeling inside. Look for shutters that have the appearance of weathering a few storms. Imperfections are a nice touch.

Another must-have accessory is tropical plants. Lush green is a dead giveaway of a tropical setting so you’ll want to add a few big, leafy plants and blooms to your space.

Regardless of which design style you prefer, what’s most important is that you make it your own.

Review the inspiration for coastal and tropical designs, and add images you like to your myProSource Project Center. Then visit your local ProSource Showroom to shop unique flooring, cabinetry and cabinet hardware that will infuse your space with the character of your preferred design.

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