A Guide to the British Colonial Interior Design Style

  • Aug 22, 2021

One of the few still celebrated legacies that the British Empire left behind during the era of colonisation in Asia was this hodgepodge of an interior design style. Done right, the British colonial interior design style evokes a breezy laid-back atmosphere, perfect for endless lounging and relaxation. We take a look at how to recreate this design in this style guide.


Image courtesy of Galen Crout

The British occupation of the “tropics” between the 17th and 19th century represents a dark part of history, where exploitation and subjugation are couched under empire discourses of salvation and civilisation. But it was also within this period that we saw a series of cultural amalgamation, evident in the homes of these European immigrants who decided to settle down in their colonies.

These colonists brought with them the elegance and formality of British interior design—the height of which was the Victorian style then—and adapted them to the heat and climate of the tropical environments while drawing details from local traditions and culture. What resulted is a blend of tropical living with the classic and formal styles of British interiors. 

Whitewashed walls

Design: Sync Interior

The heat, sun and humidity of the tropics were often considered “hazardous” for European constitutions, so keeping the interiors feeling cool was often the first order of business.

Design: Sync Interior

Walls were therefore whitewashed or painted in soft cream tones or light sand to create the illusion of a light and airy space. These light-coloured walls also provided the perfect backdrop for the rich dark wood furniture and the eclectic décor.

Airy interiors

Design: DistinctIdentity

Wooden shutters were often employed to keep out heat as well as to protect the interiors from the frequent storms in the colonies. Nowadays, there isn’t a real need for shutters, but you can still get them for a more authentic colonial look.

Design: Space Sense Studio

Most shutters come with fixed louvres, but for more flexibility, opt for those with adjustable ones that let you determine the amount of heat and light you want to come in. For a more modern window furnishing option, black-and-white bamboo blinds are a good alternative.

Design: M3 Studio

To further combat the heat and keep the air inside moving, ceiling fans became an important part of British colonial homes. Get the look with ceiling fans that come with dark woodgrain designs or ones with an antique metal finish.

Design: M3 Studio

Textures through natural materials

Design: Haus Atelier

Because of the relatively simple palette, textures were used to create more visual interest in a British colonial interior. Consider then how to create a more layered home.

One way to do so is to include the use of natural materials. For flooring, opt for dark timber wood or a lookalike for easier maintenance. Sturdy and formal furniture in dark teak or mahogany (hardwoods did better in humid climates) were also a common feature in colonial homes. Look out for ones with ornate carvings or interesting motifs—animals, plants, fruits—that would add another layer of texture to your space.

Design: Insight.Out

Contrasting against this formal look were the more casual rattan and cane furniture and furnishings. These were lightweight—which made travel easier for the British adventurer—while also helping to beat the heat. Rattan daybeds are a common sight, conjuring images of lounging on a particularly hot afternoon.

Design: Ehka Studio

When inviting textiles and fabrics, go with light and breathable fabrics like linens and cottons. These contribute to the easy breezy feel of a British colonial style home.

Design: Authors Interior & Styling

Globetrotting tendencies

Design: The Association

The British elites likened themselves to a well-travelled sort, which meant their homes were often decorated with items that they have sought in their travels. When sourcing for furnishings, hit up second-hand furniture stores for unique and vintage pieces to add to your home. Consider also exotic, travel-inspired decor like Chinese ginger jars, blue and white porcelain, magnifying glass, old maps, travel trunks and telescopes.

Design: ICIA

Campaign furniture was also a must-have in the homes of the elites. Originally produced for British officers on military campaigns who stayed in tents and couldn’t live without their modern comforts, they were later a staple in wealthier homes in the tropics. These were furniture that were multifunctional, collapsible and highly portable, to make travelling around with them easier.

Some common campaign furniture to include in your own British colonial style home are steamer chairs, folding drink trays, and military chest or chest of drawers that usually come with removable feet and can be split into smaller parts.

Tropical flair

Design: The Local Inn.terior

There was a certain obsession amongst the Victorian British for plant collecting. Plants in the tropics were seen as exotic, which saw many colonists incorporating tropical plants in their own homes. Large ferns, palm plants make a big impact while orchids and hibiscus offer a softer, more feminine touch to your British colonial style home.

Design: Collate

For the brown fingers, consider tropical prints with floral and fauna motifs as an alternative. Use them in wallpaper, soft furnishings and furniture upholstery. More unusual places to incorporate a tropical flair include drawer or cabinet handles, table décor or lighting.

Design: Collate

Design: Authors Interior & Styling


Stockist: 10 places to shop for British colonial style furnishings

The Past Perfect Collection
For: Campaign furniture and other antiques

315 Outram Road
#11-05 Tan Boon Liat Building
Singapore 169074

Island Living
For: Rattan furniture and gorgeous beds

5 Eunos Ave 8A
Singapore 409459

The GoDown
For: Conversation starters and interesting vintage items

100D Pasir Panjang Road
#02-08 The Meissa
Singapore 118520

Bungalow 55
For: British colonial style accessories and smaller furniture pieces

8D Dempsey Road
Singapore 249672

For: Intricately carved furniture

1 Bukit Batok Street 22
Level 5
Singapore 659592

Second Charm
For: Customised wood and rattan furniture

21 Kallang Ave
Singapore 339412

Junkie’s Corner
For: Vintage trinkets and furniture

2 Turf Club Road
Singapore 287988

Singapore Trading Post
For: Romantic old Singapore furniture and décor

315 Outram Road
#07-01 Tan Boon Liat Building
Singapore 169074

For: Customised upholstery pieces in tropical prints

19 Tai Seng Ave
Singapore 534054

Journey East
For: Solid wood (teak and mahogany) pieces as well as vintage furniture

315 Outram Road
#03-02 Tan Boon Liat Building
Singapore 169074


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