When the opportunity arose to host an event in Paris during Deco Off and Maison et Objet, I thought what could be better than to have a celebration of creativity surrounded by the most talented people I know? In searching for a theme for the evening, I decided to take a cue from two of the most fascinating figures in design…Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette. Gay Gassman of Architectural Digest captured the magic of the evening in the lovely article below…
The table setting for Cathy Austin’s Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette-themed dinner party in Paris. Photo: Kelly Marshall
Design has taken over Paris this week with the 10th anniversary of Paris Deco Off and the opening of global trade fair Maison + Objet. Besides the massive fair, this means more than 100 fabric and furniture showroom open houses, countless pop-ups and special events, and streets festooned with oversize lampshades swinging from the buildings in the City of Light. It also means every night is jam-packed with cocktails and dinners hosted by the big industry showrooms, but there are also smaller private events. One of the most intriguing invitations of the season was the beautifully designed one for “An Unforgettable Romp in Paris: An Evening Inspired by Elsie de Wolfe and Tony Duquette,” hosted last night by Charlotte, North Carolina–based interior designer Cathy Austin of Catherine M. Austin Interior Design at the Paris home of AD 100 designer Frank de Biasi and designer Gene Meyer.
It is always a treat to see one’s own work in print. We were thrilled to see the latest issue of Charlotte Home Design & Decor featuring us in one of my favorite columns where they showcase a different designer each month. Read below for our favorite finds s scouted from around the world…
I am not sure where Ernest Hemingway wrote this, but I would like to think it was on his terrace overlooking the Grand Canal while staying at the legendary Gritti Palace in Venice. We were fortunate enough to stay in this beautiful palace on our recent trip to Venice with the Rubelli Group who had supplied many of the fabrics for the restoration overseen by Donghia’s creative director Chuck Chewning in 2013. My pictures and words did not do this masterpiece justice so I found these wonderful articles from Architectural Digest detailing the process. My own candids follow at the end.
There is nothing better than experiencing a culture through the eyes of locals. I just returned from an incredible journey with the Rubelli family discovering the majesty of Italian manufacturing seeing their showrooms, mills, projects and archives from Milan to Venice. In between our tours looking at Italian textiles, leather, glass, art, and architecture, they graciously treated us to the most incredible meals, fellowship, and education that makes their Venetian heritage so unique. The Rubelli passion, generosity and hospitality were beyond extraordinary.
I have been saving the best chapter of our Moroccan fairy tale for last….our magnificent and magical visit to the Moroccan desert. Overwhelmed with choices on where to book our sunset dinner and camel ride, I looked to the amazing concierge at La Mamounia who provided the perfect destination…La Pause.
Located just 20 miles outside of Marrakech, in what the ancients called “Desert Marrakchi,” La Pause is set on a hill amongst a cool oasis bordered by a river with breahtaking views across the Moroccan wilderness. Designed to be a place where guests “pause” and take in the supernatural surrounding beauty, our group felt an overwhelming sense of fulfillment to be able to experience this paradise. We planned our desert excursion to take place mid week which serendipitously landed on “Hump Day.”
After five days in Morocco, all of our expectations had been exceeded and every unique experience we had seemed to be even better than the one before. Taking a “pause” in the middle of the trip to reflect on what we had seen and anticipate what lied ahead made the rest of our trip even sweeter. Tears of joy were shed riding the camels at sunset and tears of gratitude were shed as we dined by candlelight in a Berber tent with a zillion stars overhead.
Looking back on the trip, it was certainly a “pause” for all of us from our everyday lives. Taking a break from our routine allowed us to fully soak in the Moroccan inspiration, stimulate our creative juices, and in the future apply what we learned to our respective design practices. Even more so, the magic and graciousness of the Moroccan people affected us in a deeply spiritual way. The call to prayer five times a day and ending almost every sentence in “Ench Allah” or “God Willing” was a constant reminder to give ourselves up to a higher being. I think this will be the most poignant lesson from our pilgrimage….to pause and allow time in each day express gratitude, give thanks, and approach every thought and action with “God Willing.”
More about La Pause below…
Located on an oasis amid the reddish Agafay Desert, La Pause was born when eccentric French fortysomething Frédéric Alaime came horse-riding by over a decade ago. Alaime liked the spot so much that he immediately leased it from the resident Berber farmer; the modern-day result is a rustic eco-resort with activities aplenty and a pool, but no electricity and scarcely any mobile reception. Instead, snoozing, stargazing and staring into space are the order of the day.
Framed by olive trees and colorful hammocks, the filtered pool borders an organic garden which contributes rocket, alfalfa, grapes and olive oil to the resort’s delicious Berber cuisine.
Meals can be taken alfresco on terraces, or cross-legged on cushions inside tents where Gnaoua musicians play. A small massage-offering hammam and quirky boutique provide additional distraction.
Built using beautiful thick pisé (traditional mud-and-straw), La Pause’s stark, stylish lodges are atmospherically illuminated by candles and oil lamps. Each has a huge bed, a strong shower, low sofas, rugs and cushions, plus fireplaces and a patio sun-lounger for morning mint teas. Alternatively, ‘glamp’ in a spacious Bedouin tent with foam mattresses and open-air showers.
The list of available activities includes quad-bike rides, horse treks, mountain-biking, guided camel rides, cooking classes and calligraphy lessons. There’s also a short ‘cross-country’ golf course, designed into the desert and more akin to crazy golf.
Marrakech is a shopper’s paradise. Being surrounded by objects that are made by hand and not machine changes the way one looks at an object. Meeting the craftsmen and artisans fabricating these items was one of the highlights of our trip. Centuries of expertise and tradition are passed from generation to generation. The tile, baskets, metalwork, leather, embroidery, rug making, brass, pottery, and textiles show the hand of each individual that created them. Using simple tools and noble materials, the works that these craftsman create are extraordinary.
SOUKS literally means “what a mess” and a what a fun mess it is! The maze of tight alleyways sells every possible handcrafted item one can imagine. Having a guide is essential to ensure you are getting the best price and quality. Every hotel has a list of trusted guides to suggest. The main route is a sun dappled alley selling various wares. As one travels deeper into the souks, they are loosely organized according to what is sold…babouches, rugs, jewelry, metalwork, wool, spices, black magic, leather, ceramics, and clothing. Haggling is a part of the culture. Be prepared to spend a long time discussing prices.
KHALID ART GALLERY is an institution in Marrakech. Located on Dar el Basha in a traditional Riad, the Art Gallery (perhaps more accurately defined as a shop) is bursting with some of the most sought after Moroccan art, antiques, and exquisite artisanal products that Marrakech has to offer. It is easy to see why it has become so popular with the international jet set.
MAISON DU CAFTAN The ultimate place to purchase or design the perfect caftan, Moroccan jacket or djellaba. Order early in the week and have your custom clothes delivered to your doorstep in a matter of days.
MUSTAPHA BLAOUI is where all the riad interior designers knock elbows, picking through M. Blaoui’s collection of Moroccan ceramics, lanterns, rugs, and dowry chests…otherwise known as the “Cave of Mustapha.”
In addition to shopping the souks, we explored other areas of Marrakech at the recommendation of several designer friends. The Gueliz, or the “New City,” showcases the modern side of the city outside of the medina. Art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques line wide landscaped boulevards of this neighborhood.
LALLA is the brainchild of the uber cool and glamorous Laetitita Trouillet. The French stylist made her way to Marrakech from London’s Portobello Market in search of the fabulous finds in the famed souks. After cornering the market in shopping expertise and sourcing for the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow and numerous fashion editors, she turned her talents to designing and producing chic and trendy bags using local materials and craftsmen.
AKBAR DELIGHTS Perhaps the most upmarket boutique in Marrakech, Akbar Delights is pristine in its choice of imported luxury fabrics from Kasmir and India and locally made garments, footwear and accessories. It is another surprise find for most people, but the glittering array of scarves, babouche, jewelry and assorted other clothing and accessories will not disappoint.
33 RUE MARJORELLE Founded in 2010, this thoroughly modern trio of spaces—a boutique specializing in housewares and clothing, a snack bar, and a salon offering furniture, art, and a place to repose—is dedicated to the union of contemporary design and Morocco’s famed craftsmanship. Though the shop represents over 60 designers, mostly from Morocco, co-owner Yehia Abdelnour is quick to turn the focus to the local maâlems, or master craftsmen, who make the majority of what’s on view. Asked what inspired the shop’s tight edit of furniture, linens, apparel, and objets, he cites Morocco’s “abundance of skilled artisans, the vibrant and bold colors, the rich hues, the geometric ornaments, and the handcrafted textures.” And at the risk of sounding unduly brash, he asserts, “There’s no other shop quite like this in Marrakech. In all Morocco.”
BOUTIQUE MAJORELLE The on-site boutique offers a wide range of unique clothing and products, designed exclusively for the Jardin Majorelle, and which reflect ancestral Moroccan savoir-faire. They are inspired by the flora and colors of the garden, the richness of its Berber museum collections, and the work of Yves Saint Laurent that affirmed his profound passion for Morocco.The boutique features a silk and cotton clothing line, produced at the Jardin Majorelle’s own workshop, embroidered leather cushions and leather goods, artisanal soaps, and a panoply of traditional handmade preserves…Silver jewelry, silk scarves, and hand-woven textiles are presented alongside an exclusive collection of jewelry designed by Loulou de la Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent’s former studio director responsible for accessories.
ARTC One of our favorite afternoons was spent at the atelier of ArtC upon the recommendation of Laetitia Trouillet. A ballet dancer turned fashion designer, Artsi Ifrach creates one of kind wearable works of art. “I create all my pieces with a total freedom from the state of mind I have at the moment. Being respectful of the past and the culture to bring something warmer. Vintage fabrics can match past and present. Colours and prints are my landscapes. Napoleon said, ‘There is a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime.’ I search this line every time in every piece. I am thinking what we would like to have, that we do not have yet. The strongest part we all have is our individuality. That is what I am doing with one-of-a-kind pieces, as we all are.”
LA GALERIE DES TANNEURS A fashionista’s dream! La Galerie des Tanneurs selects the finest materials to make wallets, coats, handbags, shoes, luggage, trousers or skirts all soft to the touch. The curious can even venture into the adjoining leather workshop where in the rules of art, items are entirely hand-made. Nearly eighty artisans working in workshops in the city to offer the best of their skills in record time. Each item is likely to be made, customized, within 48 hours in the leather and the color of one’s choice.
POPHAM DESIGNS Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes, the American founders, work with Moroccan mellums, or tile artisans, who produce the tiles in an energy-efficient hydraulic press. Cement tiles are part of the heritage and cultural/artistic identity of Morocco. They bring a modern design sensibility to the tradition of Moroccan cement tiles. Shortly after arriving in Marrakech, the couple bought a 250-year-old home in the medina, or ancient walled city, and set to renovating it. Drawn to the geometric black-and-white cement tiles of the home’s courtyard, they soon found themselves sketching their own designs. With these tile designs, they found a balance between their own modern aesthetic and the home’s traditional architecture. An appreciation for the flexibility and practicality of cement tiles as well as the medium’s design possibilities led the Dowe-Sandes to found Popham Design.The designs take their aesthetic cue from life in Morocco and the things that inspire them – the curve of an arch, a delicate carved wooden ceiling, the branch of an almond tree, the shadow cast by the wheel of a donkey cart. The patterns are designed to be flexible so that the same tiles can be arranged in numerous layouts.
MICHELE BACONNIER Designer Michèle Baconnier is known for her re-designs of that quintessential Moroccan slipper, the babouche. Her store also sells women’s and children’s clothing, jewelry, household accessories, such as gorgeous blankets and throws. A passionate traveller and a creative designer, she combines both passions to produce an abundance of colorful, delightful designs.
RIAD ELISA An oasis of tranquility and serenity in the heart of the Medina of Marrakesh. The elegantly predominant white with touches of color creates a charming yet chic style which subtly embraces relaxation. Meet up at the Riad Elisa Marrakesh main Patio before enjoying a delicious dinner at Max Restaurant, on your way to indulge at Elisa Spa, coming back from sipping a refreshing cocktail at the Roof Top terrace or simply sit down at the Salon and enjoy reading a book surrounded by traditionally hand embroidered silk textiles which together with the soft rumor of the fountain and the sumptuous scent of the local flowers transport you to the authentic Morocco. Decorated by the prestigious Interior Designer Tomás Alía, this hidden gem is one of Marrakesh best kept secrets. A bucolic retreat for those who are looking for a unique and luxurious Morocco.
EL FENN With 28 individually styled rooms and suites, tree-filled courtyards, a 7000 square foot roof terrace and a family of resident tortoises, El Fenn is the perfect retreat from which to enjoy Africa’s most exotic city. In 2002 Vanessa Branson and Howell James were looking for a holiday home and walked into the almost ruined courtyard of one of Marrakech’s formerly great private homes. Nearing dusk and with the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing in the air, they instantly fell in love with the atmospheric house. At the time, only a handful of Marrakech’s riads had been converted to small hotels and Vanessa and Howell knew they wanted to create a home from home retreat that combined great food and service with the spirit of the building’s past and a contemporary decorative twist. During a two-year renovation, local craftsman used traditional techniques to breathe new life into the building. Polished lime plastering was used in a rainbow of colours to create walls, baths and bed frames, original tiling was renovated and carved cedar ceilings restored. Retro furniture sourced from local flea markets was combined with one-off bespoke pieces to create a unique interior.
MANDARIN ORIENTAL MARRAKECH Interior designers Patrick Giles and Dorothee Boissier mix Arabic, Berber and Andalusian styles often in bold contrasts of black and white to create some of the most glamorous interiors in Marrakech. The resort itself is situated on 50 acres of landscaped gardens with views of the Atlas Mountains and proximity to the golf courses. The spa offers treatments derived from various disciplines, Berber, Thai and Chinese Traditional Medicine included. You can steam in the hammam, be wrapped in rose petals or massaged with Morocco’s own Argan oil.
PEACOCK PAVILIONS Peacock Pavilions is a handmade, artisanal boutique hotel in an olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech. Part of the M.Montague offerings, Peacock Pavilions was designed and built by Americanauthor, blogger and designer, Maryam Montague, and her American husband, Chris Redecke. The hotel, like the rest of M.Montague brand, supports Project Soar, a non-profit organization established the couple to empower local Moroccan girls through art and sports, as well as health and English language education. Maryam, her husband, and two children continue to live at Peacock Pavilions where they share their own slice of a Marrakesh oasis with resident peacocks Maurice, Persephone and Gigi, five cats, one mischievous yellow lab, and any guests lucky enough to be stopping through.
ROYAL MANSOUR MARRAKECH The hotel was born out of a vision to create a spectacular masterpiece exceeding the demands of today’s discerning traveler, while reflecting the true essence of Moroccan tradition. The magnificent main reception building with its fabulous lobby, the bar, the different lounges, the beautiful library, as well as the three renowned restaurants, entice guests in. Inspired by North Africa, Spain as well as Portugal’s traditional Moorish architecture, the Royal Mansour Marrakech hotel design showcases symmetry entwined with classical forms. As for the interior, it is a pure celebration of the diversity and virtuosity of master craftsmen from the Kingdom, with lace embedded plaster, carved ceilings, floors and walls, where Tadelakt and Zelliges take turns in the spotlight. The spa offers guests a spiritual journey, leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the city and daily stresses as they enter into a world of tranquillity and peace. The outdoor hot air gives way to a comfortable coolness within this vast wellness area. The purity of white, punctuated by the colourful floral bouquets and the serenity of the surroundings, are only interrupted by the melodious birdsongs and the soothing sounds of the water fountains. At the heart of this enchanting universe is an impressive fairy-tale white wrought iron atrium, evoking an elaborate birds’ cage.
LA MAMOUNIA Our grand finale to our trip included a brief stay at La Mamounia. Not only has this legendary hotel hosted everyone from royalty to rock stars, it was also renovated by favorite designer Jacques Garcia in 2009. Designed in 1922 by architects Prost and Marchisio, La Mamounia combined the Moroccan architectural tradition with Art Deco design and decoration. The hotel originally had 100 rooms, but was expanded in 1946, 1950 and 1953, and now includes nearly 200 rooms. Inspired by centuries of history, Garcia created a mythical setting evocative of a Moroccan palace. In lieu of the original Art Deco style, the designer used oriental influeneces, zelliges, mosaics, woodwork, wrought iron, stained glass and marble. Click here to read more about this iconic hotel.
Known as the jewel of Morocco, Marrakech has been the epicenter of culture and trade for over one thousand years. The pink walls, meandering alleys, and doors leading to palaces, courtyards and magnificent riads, are a feast for the eyes. The convergence of the most exotic cultures in the world, European, Arabian and African, is revealed in everything from the art and architecture to the cuisine and culture. The entire city shifts in color from pale pink in the morning light to a deep rose in the late afternoon sun. We could not have picked a more ideal destination to leave behind the hustle of everyday life and escape into this bohemian fantasy world.
To seek out the best interiors and design elements, we made sure to see every iconic hotel, restaurant, and rooftop that Marrakech had to offer. We planned our itinerary to have days of intense sightseeing and shopping offset with days with a (very slightly) more relaxed pace. Our grand finale took us to La Mamounia where we only left the grounds once to see the famed Jemma El Fna on our last night.
EL FENN is the perfect retreat from which to enjoy Africa’s most exotic city. Combining grandeur and historic architecture with hideaway nooks, terraces and gardens, the hotel is just five minutes from the world-famous Jemaa El Fna square and bustling maze of streets that make up the souk.In 2002 Vanessa Branson and Howell James were looking for a holiday home and walked into the almost ruined courtyard of one of Marrakech’s formerly great private homes. Nearing dusk and with the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing in the air, they instantly fell in love with the atmospheric house. They soon realized that their holiday home was going to become so much more. On the rooftop, you can enjoy a breakfast of breads, pastries, fruit and eggs complete with sunshine and a view of the Atlas Mountains. By noon, the day’s set Moroccan lunch menu changes according to what’s in season or you can pick a dish from our light menu that runs until 6pm. On warmer evenings, dinner is served under the stars.
LE JARDIN is located through a small door opening to a large courtyard enclosed in a 17th-century mansion. Interior designer Anne Favier reinvented this very beautiful house in the Sidi Abdelaziz quarter. They found it in ruin, and renovated it in tones of green, adding lots of plants, trees and water features, into a small oasis…A cool 1960s décor imagined in harmony with all the Moroccan crafts, creates a very contemporary feel.
MAISON MK is a foodie focused spa hotel…and full of personality. A retired fashion photographer transformed a 600-year-old riad in the Marrakech medina into Maison mk hotel, a design den that blends traditional Moroccan motifs with modern minimalist touches. The teardrop-shaped plunge pool, vibrantly coloured fabrics and silk artwork all showcase an eye for detail at this comfortable contemporary retreat.
DAR YACOUT Every visitor to Marrakech has to try Dar Yacout, a medina institution. Follow winding alleyways to the restaurants courtyard, strewn with petals. Designed in the early 1990’s by American expat architect Bill Willis, this fantasy palace—shiny tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, scalloped columns, and striped turrets—has influenced Moroccan interiors ever since. A landmark of Marrakech, it was amongst the first created twenty years ago in the medina by Mohamed Zkhiri, who presides over the destiny of this sumptuous venue. The decor is enchanting with its private rooms and breath-taking panoramic view from the terrace overlooking the medina and the Koutoubia mosque of Marrakesh. Highly traditional Moroccan gastronomic cuisine with a menu incorporating an amazing succession of flavours, and service that lives up to anyone’s standards.
BELDI COUNTRY CLUB Like many Marrakech residents, Jean Dominique Leymarie makes his home in the medina. But he was intrigued by the idea of creating a retreat from the dust and noise, so he bought some land just outside town, planted 15,000 rosebushes, put in a pool and a spa, and invited the public to spend a day in the country. It proved a hit, and in 2009 he added a luxury boutique hotel to the mix. Designed in the traditional – or beldi – style that is the heart and soul of Morocco, the 28 rooms were built of earth, plaster, wood and iron, and furnished entirely from local markets. They form part of a living, breathing Moroccan village with craft workshops, a bakery and souks selling Safi pottery, hand-embroidered linens and Berber carpets. All around are 15 hectares of magnificent grounds, filled with palms, olive and fruit trees, tall grasses, herbs and a sea of roses. It’s a 10-minute hop by taxi to the medina, and staff can arrange lakeside picnics at their kasbah in the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks shimmer in the distance. Return each evening to find dozens of lanterns glowing along serpentine paths to the 3 restaurants, bar and cosy salons, creating a sublimely magical and private setting.
LE COMPTOIR is a legend in Marrakech, but not necessarily for the food. The Franco-Moroccan dishes are served with some panache and rarely fail, but the atmosphere and the spectacle are much more memorable. It’s a mix of restaurant, lounge and boutique, in a large Art Deco villa. Head straight to the upstairs bar for a pre-dinner drink and you’ll understand what the fuss is about and why this place has a reputation. Downstairs, the large, plush-red dining room is more stageset than restaurant. The menu is a mix of French, Moroccan and Asian influences. Minds tend to wander from the food to the floor around 9.30pm, when lithe belly dancers descend the big staircase to cavort around – and, if you are lucky, on – the tables. The place carries on buzzing, upstairs and down, till late in the night.
BO ZIN This hip restaurant and lounge is set in an exotic garden where luxurious fountains and summer lounges were designed for your well-being, an invitation to dream, a mixture of Zen spirit and elegance. Live music and performances add to the unique experience.
LING LING /MANDARIN ORIENTAL Ling Ling draws inspiration from the izakaya concept made popular in the East, where food accompanies the drinks and not the other way around. With drinking, dining and dancing at the forefront, Ling Ling bends the Hakkasan DNA to create a restaurant and bar experience that reflects and complements the environment. Created by Executive Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee, the menu features reinvented presentations of the Cantonese cuisine synonymous with Hakkasan, perfect for sharing between friends. The cocktails are at the heart of the experience, with an intriguing drinks and wine list curated by the award-winning team in London. Designed by Parisian duo Gilles & Bossier and located in the West wing of the lobby, Ling Ling has a spacious outdoor terrace overlooking the gardens, lounge and bar.
KOUTOUBIA MOSQUE Five times a day, the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from atop the Koutoubia Mosque minaret. Excavations confirm a longstanding Marrakshi legend: the original mosque built by Almoravid architects wasn’t properly aligned with Mecca, so the pious Almohads levelled it to build a realigned one. When the present mosque was finished in the 12th century, 100 booksellers were clustered around its base – hence the name, from kutubiyyin, or booksellers.
MEDERSA BEN YOUSSEF “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded” reads the inscription over the entryway to the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, and after almost six centuries, the blessing still works its charms on visitors. Founded in the 14th century under the Merenids, this Quranic learning centre was once the largest in North Africa, and remains among the most splendid. Sight lines are lifted in the entry with carved Atlas cedar cupolas and wooden-lattice screen balconies. The medersa’s courtyard is a mind-boggling profusion of Hispano-Moresque ornament: five-colour zellij (mosaic) walls; stucco archways; cedar windows with weather-worn carved vines; and a curved mihrab (eastern-facing niche) of prized, milky-white Italian Carrara marble.
LE JARDIN MARJORELLE These famous gardens were started by the painter Jacques Marjorelle in 1937, opened to the public in 1947, and eventually purchased by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1980. Click here to read about these legendary gardens.
JEMAA EL FNA The medina’s central square means “Assembly of the Dead” since the plaza was the site of public executions around AD 1050. The daily performances include snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, acrobats, musicians, tooth pullers, herbalists and fortune tellers. At dusk, it becomes the country’s largest street fair with over 100 chefs arrive with grills in tow to set up their food stalls. UNESCO declared the square a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ in 2001.
Stay tuned for PART 2 featuring where to SHOP, STAY and SPA in Marrakech coming soon!
I am channeling my inner Talitha Getty this weekend packing and preparing for our Marrakech adventure. I have always been enchanted with the patterns and colors of Morocco, but this is the first trip where I knew so little about the customs and culture of a destination. Every place I have traveled before I had studied in various classes from high school to design school learning everything from the history and religion to the art of architecture of the region. I have tried to do a self taught crash course in all things Moroccan and I am beyond fascinated by this part of the world the more that I learn.
The varied culture, customs and design influences can be attributed to the number of groups that have conquered Morocco…Arabs, Berbers, Africans, Turks, Romans, Byzantines, and French. Around 1000BC, the area around Marrakech served as a temporary campsite to nomads who made their living crossing the Sahara and trading with African tribes to the south. A permanent city was not founded until 1062, when Ben Youssef of the Almoravid dynasty claimed the site for his soldiers and erected the Koutobia mosque. Marrakech became an important cultural, economic and military base.
“Understanding Morocco’s history and culture is essential to finding the answer to Morocco’s design equation. So many foreign, indigenous and religious influences have left their mark on Moroccan decor in indeliable ways. And the end is a heady mixture of old and new that has caught the design world by storm.” -Maryam Montague, Marrakesh By Design
Maryam’s book explains how Moroccans believe in magic in both good and bad. Most design elements have great significance. Talismans, numbers, colors, symbols, and substances are thought to have magical powers. Doors are painted blue to ward off evil spirits from entering the home.
The Moroccans have the reputation of being friendly and gracious. Perhaps it is their fear of the “evil eye” that makes them so admirable. “The evil eye can be described as a glance combined with a compliment. Compliments are believed to be dangerous if they are associated with envy and coveting; a person’s good fortune, good health, or good looks may provoke envious people to cast the evil eye…Some Moroccans belive if not twarted, the evil eye can provoke sickness or misfortune, and thus every effort must be made to circumvent it through the use of symbols, substances and talismans.” -Maryam Montague Marrakesh By Design
Modesty is paramount to also discourage the “evil eye.” Morocco is a conservative nation with 99% of its population identifying as Muslims. Therefore, the first rule to dressing in Morocco is to respect Islam’s emphasis on modesty. Clothes and accessories are not meant to attract attention or excessively reveal the body. Women should ensure that their clothes do not expose the décolletage, shoulders, or thighs. Furthermore, because of Islam’s emphasis on modesty, brand names are not often seen on Moroccan streets and the display of ostentatious jewelry, luxury handbags, and high-end electronics is discouraged . Most households tend to live prudently, and value giving to the community over materialism.
Hand shaped door knockers represent the protective hand of Fatima.
Pom Poms are sequins are also thought to ward off the veil eye and mischievous genies.
Even in tile design, there is significance to the designs. Islam prohibits the depiction of human and animal figures because it is imitating God’s creation. Therefore, Tastir (geometric) and Tawriq (floral) are the predominant patterns found in the designs. The repeating patterns symbolize eternity and are said to inspire meditation on the eternal nature of God.
Fountains play a major decorative role in the culture. Water symbolizes paradise and rules mandate cleanliness before prayer.
Symbols instead of actual animal depictions are used as talismans in Moroccan rug. Click here to read a previous post dedicated to the various Moroccan rug designs.
Finally, join us on our Instagram Takeover for Traditional Home September 25-27 as we share the sights, designs, and visual experiences of Marrakech with Cloth & Kind, The English Room and Buckingham Interiors +Design!
I am battling the Monday blues by studying more Marrakech history. One of our first stops on our trip will be Le Jardin Marjorelle. These famous gardens were started by the painter Jacques Marjorelle in 1937, opened to the public in 1947, and eventually purchased by Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1980.
Jacques Marjorelle was a French orientalist painter and the son of the famous Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Marjorelle. He fell in love with Marrakech and purchased a palm grove in 1923 which is now Le Jardin Marjorelle.
As Marjorelle travelled the world, the artist would bring back specimens to add to his garden including hundreds of rare varieties of trees and plants that included: cacti, palm trees, bamboo, coconut palms, thujas, weeping willows, carob trees, jasmine, agaves, white water lilies, datura, cypress, bougainvilleas, and ferns. He laid out the gardens in the same way he would arrange the composition of a painting playing with light and shadow and introducing bold color through painted walls and pottery.
He began introducing color by painting the facade of his studio, and then gates, pergolas, pots and the various buildings in a scheme of bold and brilliant primary colors. His favorite shade was, an ultramarine, cobalt blue, “evoking Africa” which came to be known as “Marjorelle Blue”. This intense blue accentuated the various shades of green found throughout the garden.
In 1931, he commissioned the architect, Paul Sinoir, to design a Cubist villa for him, constructed near his first house. His workshop, where he would paint his large decorations, was located on the ground floor, and he established a studio on the first floor where he spent much of his time. Balconies and an Arab-inspired pergola were added to the construction in 1933.
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé discovered the Jardin Majorelle in 1966, during their first stay in Marrakech.
“We quickly became very familiar with this garden, and went there every day. It was open to the public yet almost empty. We were seduced by this oasis where colours used by Matisse were mixed with those of nature… And when we heard that the garden was to be sold and replaced by a hotel, we did everything we could to stop that project from happening. This is how we eventually became owners of the garden and of the villa. And we have brought life back to the garden through the years.” – Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent, “Une passion marocaine” Éditions de la Martinière, 2010
In 1980, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the Jardin Majorelle, saving it from real estate developers. The new owners decided to live in the Villa Bou Saf Saf, which they renamed Villa Oasis, and undertook the restoration of the garden in order to “make the Jardin Majorelle become the most beautiful garden – by respecting the vision of Jacques Majorelle.”
The painter’s studio has been transformed into a museum open to the public, dedicated to Berber culture, housing the personal Berber collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
Yves Saint Laurent would say he was able to find an unlimited source of inspiration in the Jardin Majorelle, and that he dreamt many times about its unique colours.
Yves St. Laurent dies in 2008 in Paris. His ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the Villa Oasis; a memorial was built in the garden, designed around a Roman pillar which was brought from Tangier and set on a pedestal with a plate bearing his name, so that visitors can remember him and his unique contribution to fashion. “It is a way for artists to live on… ” After Yves died, I donated the Jardin Majorelle and the Villa Oasis to the foundation in Paris which bears both our names.” – Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent, Une passion marocaine, Éditions de la Martinière, 2010
Do you know the difference between a Boucherouite and a Beni Ourain? In anticipation of my upcoming Moroccan adventure, I am studying up on my terminology to prepare myself for shopping in the souks. I always advise clients to think of rugs as artwork for the floor. In the same way I like to bring out the colors of clients’ artwork for their interior palettes, the same concept applies to the rugs. Rug making is a cornerstone of Morocco’s history and tradition. Every rug tells a story about the artist who created it incorporating symbols and talismans.
I was fascinated to learn that all of the rugs or “zerbiyas” are made by one of the forty-five Berber tribes in the country. The majority of rugs are handmade by women in wool on a loom and each tribe is known for their specific colors and designs. Each one can take from 10 days to 6 months to make. The 3 main types of rugs are Boucherouite, Beni Ourain, Azilal or Ourika.
“Boucherouite rugs are specific to Moroccan berber tribes. In these, often very modest, households, the Berber women weave Boucherouite rugs out of discarded scraps of material. A thousand scraps of cotton, nylon and occasionally wool are woven into these fabulous boucherouite decorative creations.The contrast between the poverty of the materials used and the richness of the final composition adds to these awe-inspiring works of modern art.
The sheer honesty of these artistic creations, their bright colors, their lyrical abstract movements and their modest prices are of great interest to the younger generation who appreciate their authenticity and aesthetic value.We become stirred by such carpets, moved by the knowledge that they were never conceived as artwork, developed at the whim of its weaver and influenced by the buried memories of their ancestors.
The Berber women weave through movement of their fingers, with no drawings or predefined designs, exactly as the different brush works create a painting. This is how each “boucharouette” tapestry becomes a unique work of art and how the limitless sensitivity of the Berber women can be expressed with no premeditation. The cultural influences of these Berber women can be traced back to the dawn of time; the ever-present diamond motif has existed since Neolithic times. These works reveal traces of thousand-year-old civilizations, revealing signs and symbols of even more distant history.
As Frederic DAMGAARD notes, in his excellent book “Tapis et tissages, l’art des femmes berbères au Maroc”, it is judicious to compare the tapestry work of the Berber women to a musical instrument: “It is easy to compare a Berber woman in front of her loom, to a pianist in front of his piano. Both compose a beautiful melody, with rhythms and harmonies, with colors and notes. Their scores remain flexible leaving space for personal improvisation. Both have access to large repertoires that can be interpreted according to personal whim and sensitivity.
It is fascinating to state how the strong and sublime graphics of these Berber carpets and rugs has inspired many modern artists. It will always be astounding to notice the same notes that run through Berber carpets apparent in the works of KANDINSKY, KLEE, MONDRIAN, POLLOCK, or many other abstract artists.
Beni Ourain carpets are considered the most prestigious rugs in Morocco, made from the very finest wool. every rug is one of a kind. The rugs are authentic tribal rugs fully hand-woven by women of the Beni Ourain and other neighbouring Berber tribes that reside in the North-Eastern Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Winter is rough in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains where the lowest temperatures in Africa are observed. To protect themselves from the cold, Beni Ourain tribes, who lived in traditional tents, had no alternative other than to produce thick wool rugs to insulate themselves from an hostile environment.The Beni Ourain rugs were not intended to have a decorative purpose, they were traditionally used as bedding and blankets to keep them warm with their thick pile.
Because of their landlocked and mountainous location in the northern Middle Atlas, the Berber tribes of Beni Ourain have never been influenced by the Arab-eastern designs .Their rugs have kept their originality, reflecting archaic appearance of minimalist designs, composed of black and brown asymmetric patterns of diamonds,lines and triangles, in an off-white, cream background. The Beni Ourain tribes spend the summer with their herds on the heights of the range, over 2000 meters and come back down in the grassy plains with the first snowfall. The herds of goats and sheep enjoy a rich and abundant food throughout the year providing a high quality wool to produce the most appealing rugs of the world.
The Beni Ourain rugs very artistic designs have inspired many European artists such as Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier (who matched the Berber rugs with sleekly designed furniture), Paul Klee and , as well as most famous modernist architects in the 1920’s and 30’s . They got trendy by Henri Matisse, who called them “The huge whites”
“I don’t see them as trendy; I see them as timeless” and ‘’this quirkiness is exactly what makes these rugs appealing to interior designers. They give a room, particularly a cold, modern room, warmth and patina as well as a dose of ethnicity,” said Timothy Whealon of Timothy Whealon Interiors in New York about the Beni Ourain rugs.
The charm, luxury and simplicity of these Berber rugs make them the most famous and appreciated carpet in Morocco and a worldwide interior design reference. These tribal rugs seem to combine a modernist taste for minimalist linearity with the graphic symbolism of primitive art. The tribal graphics pair well with contemporary and traditional space designs.
Azilal Rugs or Azilals, as their name suggests, originate from the craggy and steep Azilal (Moroccan Berber Region), located in the remote and hard to reach High Atlas mountains. Only performed by women of this region, Azilal rugs are made from virgin raw wool by alternating composed patterns of one single knotted line and one or two woven lines, according to a cultural ritual that mothers are passing down to daughters for generations.Azilal carpets are often associated with another name “Ourika” to actually refer to all the rugs that are produced a little further south by the High Atlas mountains tribes.
Azilal rugs feature great creativity in terms of design; they combine irregular and abstract patterns with numerous Berbers symbols and diamonds based graphics. They are often decorated with colored materials such as wool and cotton tainted with vegetable dye or threads of recycled cloth of different colors. Azilal carpets’ background is ivory /cream, made of natural virgin wool. Azilal carpets are works where every peasant woman of Azilal region tells her story. Rural life, motherhood and childbirth are patterns’ main topics. Actually , weavers appropriate tribal signs of their ancestors to express their wedding, pregnancy and daily lives. These rugs were not woven for commercial or profit-making purpose, but only for home use to cope with the rough high Atlas cold. Currently, in Western countries, in addition to Azilals’ regular use as carpets, they are widely introduced in interior decoration as beautiful wall ornaments or design elements.
Fruits of weavers’ imagination and genuine works of art, comparable to abstract paintings, Azilal rag rugs are rare and were almost unknown in the market until the years 90. From Paris to USA and Tokyo, many galleries exhibit Azilal carpets as works of art. Their originality and immense strength in terms of graphics have deeply inspired artists such as Matisse, Paul Klee and Le Corbusier.
Images and rug history via Morrocan Rugs.