Tropical Modern: A Seductive Spin on Island-Style Homes

Rejecting thatched roofs and flamingo pink, many affluent home buyers ask for the laid-back look called tropical modern

Forget thatched roofs, flamingo-pink tiles and cheesy wooden carvings. Homeowners in warm-weather climes increasingly want the look of laid-back, low-key luxury.

Tropical modern, as the style is called, combines the clean lines and muted color palette of contemporary design with the exotic woods and stone found in island homes. Many affluent buyers are willing to pay a premium for tropical-modern homes.

The style “is having quite a big revival,” says architect Iain Jackson, a professor at the Liverpool School of Architecture in the U.K. who studies tropical architecture. He says the look is popular in Hawaii, Bali, the Maldives and other high-end destinations, where it has “taken on a much more glamorous and seductive high-end feel.” At the same time, he says, the designs “are borrowing from local vernacular traditions.”

Homeowners are starting to ask for tropical modern homes by name, says Paul Fischman, partner at Choeff Levy Fischman, a Miami-based architecture firm that specializes in the style. Mr. Fischman brings exterior materials such as limestone inside for a more cohesive look between indoor and outdoor living. Colors are cool whites or beige. The designs are the opposite of the colorful Art Deco homes once popular in the city, he says. “There’s no flamingo pink,” he adds.

In Miami, attorney Howard Srebnick was inspired by Balinese architecture to build a tropical-modern home in place of a run-down Mediterranean-style home that had been on the property. To maximize the views of Biscayne Bay, Mr. Srebnick worked with architects at Choeff Levy Fischman to design a home where the “emphasis was on the outside,” he says. Mr. Srebnick, 54, spent nearly $3 million to build the five-bedroom, 9,600-square-foot home, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and two school-age children. Wall-length sliding doors open to the outdoor terraces and an infinity-edge pool with a shallow splash area. A concrete staircase, interior stone and recessed lighting replace a flashier look.

But he didn’t get everything on his wish list. Mindful of South Florida hurricanes, Mr. Srebnick opted for plenty of impact-resistant glass and concrete on the exterior instead of Balinese-inspired exterior dark wood features that he originally wanted. “We felt like it was more important to be living in a bunker,” he says.

At the home of life coach Alejandra Llamas and real-estate developer Genaro Diaz in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, a magnolia tree is planted inside the home’s partially covered entrance as a tropical nod to visitors, but the interiors are intentionally muted. A guesthouse with a gym, maid’s quarters, additional covered porches and a separate massage area contribute to a soothing spa feel. “I wanted to give it a sense of visiting a resort,” says Ms. Llamas, 46, who is listing the two-year-old home for $11.9 million because her two teenage children will soon be off to college and she wants to downsize.

Agents say luxury buyers are demanding modern homes with an island vibe and forgoing more traditional Mediterranean-style homes. In recent years, tropical-modern homes have been selling at a premium of as much as 30% compared with other styles, estimates Susy Dunand, a real-estate agent with One Sotheby’s International Realty in Miami. “Tropical modern is what it is now—everybody is looking for something like that,” says Ms. Dunand.

Avoiding a strict adherence to modern architecture gives tropical-modern homes a more timeless look, says Lourdes Alatriste, another Sotheby’s agent. “If you are too modern, in 15 years that’s going to be dated,” she says. “This is a younger look and it’s more attractive to the eye.” Ms. Alatriste adds that homes range from $6 million to $12 million in the area and is working with Ms. Llamas in the sale of her home.

When Jennie Wilson, who volunteers with nonprofits, and her husband, Bruce, a commercial real-estate investor, built a tropical-modern home near Hawaii’s Kona coast, they worked with San Francisco architect Shay Zak to keep some of the traditional materials found in Hawaiian homes. For example, verandas are supported by columns carved from local Ohia wood. The master bathroom features a Zen-like lava rock wall and an outdoor shower. “There are nods to Hawaii, but you wouldn’t look at it and say ‘It’s so Hawaii,’ ” she says. “I don’t think [Mr. Zak] would have built us a house if we wanted waterfalls,” says Ms. Wilson, who paid nearly $8 million to acquire the land and build the home in 2007.

Still, the couple couldn’t resist the appeal of a tiki bar, but it has a modern, live-edge-wood top on it. The bar is located in the ’ohana, a kind of guesthouse in Hawaii.

The trick is to infuse a tropical environment with a modern, urban aesthetic, says Mr. Zak, author of “New Tropical Classics,” a book that features photos and site plans of his designs. Mr. Zak’s designs often include traditional hip roofs or gable roofs commonly seen in Hawaii, rather than the flat or steeply angled roofs typically seen on Midcentury Modern homes. “When people go to Hawaii, they don’t want a box,” he says. “They want something to blend in with the Hawaiian feel when having a mai-tai.”

Tropical modernism likely emerged in parts of Asia in the 1940s and ’50s, Mr. Jackson says, when modern architects adapted designs popular during the British Empire to build practical and affordable homes. Heavy furnishings and window treatments were replaced with louvered walls and windows to facilitate cross ventilation and breezy interiors. Ornate tilework was replaced with poured-concrete foundations and walls. Initially, “it was austere and done pragmatically to save money” on cooling and building costs, he explains.

Mr. Zak advises clients to use just one or two types of wood, stone or other natural material. Many of his homes use walls of glass as pocket doors that fold away to create covered terraces. “We try to design each house in a way that gets away from the Mainland trends,” he says.

Interiors have only hints of the tropics, says Dara Rosenfeld, San Francisco-based interior design who has worked on dozens of tropical-modern homes in Hawaii. For Ms. Wilson, she designed sofas with a mix of steel and bamboo, and featured abstract art made with oyster shells. “It was a play on Hawaiiana, but more subtle,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.