- January 28, 2020
DESIGN TRIP: MOROCCO
Our trip to Morocco might have started out as research (our studio was currently working on three Moroccan-inspired projects back home), but this country on the northwestern tip of Africa turned out to be a marriage of two of my favourite destinations: the Middle East and India.
Walking through the twisting alleys of its ancient cities, it was easy to get swept up in the chaos, the fun, the energy–but it was very hard to pry myself away from the timeless architecture, the textiles and the brass work (I had to fly home with six extra suitcases). In Morocco you literally stumble upon inspiration, so let this rough design itinerary be your guide.
Chefchaouen the Blue City
After flying into Casablanca, my group rented a car and drove through the countryside to this small city in the mountains. Everything in Chefchaouen is washed in a stunning cobalt blue and it feels really unique from the rest of Morocco. It’s cooler, a little foggy up there, and it doesn’t have classic Moroccan architecture. Instead it feels a bit more like Santorini with a touch of Middle East, the homes are abode, rounded, (blue, of course), and a bit bizarre.
Design Highlight: Meandering Through the Streets
Don’t have an exact plan, just wander around and aimlessly explore the tall, crooked streets and the buildings rinsed in blue. Chefchaouen is home to artisans you won’t find in the rest of Morocco, so it’s a special spot for locally crafted wool, antiques and brassware.
Fes: Get Thee to a Tannery
On the road again, we drove inland to Fes, which has a reputation for being the true shopping Mecca of Morocco. The locus of its wares are found in its old town district, an ancient walled-in-city-within-a-city, called the medina. This area is full of crazy architecture, dwellings, schools, food stalls, shops and leather–lots and lots of leather.
Design Highlight: The Chouara Tannery
In Fes, you really see the artisans creating the product right in front of you. Which has its pluses and its minuses. This quite famous tannery is Fes is surrounded by leather stores. You can’t see it from the street, so you have to go into one of these shops, past the wallets and handbags, to a back balcony that looks out over this gorgeous courtyard of stone pools filled with colourful baths. Some workers are standing in the pools, which is impressive, as even from a distance this whole place smells more pungent and disgusting than you can imagine. The tannery uses traditional methods, i.e. bird poop, to tan the goat hides, and so when one of the shop owners offers you a mint bouquet to stuff up your nose, you’re well advised to take it.
Design Highlight: The University of al-Qarawiyyin
What I love about Morocco is that they don’t believe that any one surface should be plain. And so of course the floor at this ancient 9th century Koranic school is a mix of green and white tile, and of course it’s chevron. Every inch of the floors, staircases and hallways are covered in intricate, elaborate tile work. Because the Moroccans just know how to make everything interesting.
Design Highlight: Rugs, Rugs, Rugs
Hidden deep within the depths of the medina, in the little tiny alleyways and halls, you’ll find a small door, and then you can go in the door and it opens to the most amazing rug store you’ve ever seen. And inside this shop they’re ripping the rugs from big giant sacks and fanning them out for you to see, and the rugs are made of woven cactus silk and wool–it’s amazing. Palais Quaraouiyine is one of the rug shops we visited, but most of them we stumbled into and wouldn’t be able to find again, so just enjoy the hunt. Shopping note: Rugs range from $100 to $3,000 plus, but really the price depends on how good you are at bartering.
Design Highlight: A Mystery Thread Shop
Wandering the medina I spied this unnamed spot. It’s a wide-open space with 30-foot ceilings and walls lined with spools of thread. It’s not fancy, it’s kind of dilapidated, with more spools sitting on cardboard boxes, but it’s just the most amazing looking store you’ve ever seen.
We turned another corner and found this amazing antique store. It had towering ceilings and there were gigantic brass lanterns hanging everywhere.
Design Highlight: Riads Over Hotels / Palais Bahia Fes
When it came to accommodation, we avoided modern hotels and stayed exclusively in authentic Moroccan homes wherever we went, a.k.a. riads. A riad is a traditional type of home that typically has multiple rooms that surround a central courtyard, with Moroccan-peak arches, large bird cages and plants. The entire riad is done in blacks and whites, with candle-lit lanterns, encaustic concrete tiles and white, effortlessly draped fabrics–a design lover’s dream. The owner here was also so helpful and friendly.
The Walking Taxi: Fes is literally the most confusing chaotic maze you’ve ever been in and so to help us get around, our riad owner arranged a series of “walking taxis” for us. That’s not the official name, we nicknamed it the “walking taxi” because a person arrives at your door and walks you to your next destination. It’s a total life saver, and if you want to find your way back home at night, it’s absolutely essential.
The Desert Pit Stop: Erg Chebbi
From Fes we drove eight hours into the Sahara desert, then got on camels and trekked for the rest of the day, arriving in Erg Chebbi, somewhere near the boarder of Algeria. We were in the absolute middle of nowhere, had just cameled past a sand dune, and then we saw the sun setting on our home for the night: a desert camp of amazing white tents.
Design Highlight: The Desert Rug
Inside the camp, rugs layer on top of one another to make pathways and cover the floors inside the tents. And more than the camels, the remoteness, or the sand dunes, what I loved more than anything was watching how Moroccans use rugs as absolutely functional items. Whereas we use rugs in our homes for a little bit of warmth, colour, texture, or design–they do it because the sand is super hot during the day and super cold at night. Here they set up a tent and lay out a carpet and instantly it feels more homey. I found it so interesting that in the West we’ll buy Moroccan rugs at exorbitant prices and in Morocco they’re literally using the exact same carpet and chucking it on the sand, letting it get dirty. They’re using it like we would use a dishcloth. I loved that.
Marrakech: The Four Day Shopping Spree
After saying goodbye to our camels, we drove through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to arrive at our final destination, Marrakech. Not every part of Morocco has the same aesthetic, but it feels like someone collected every single item across the country and made it available in Marrakech. It’s a total melting pot of design. And it is the best place I’ve ever been to, in my life, for shopping.
Design Highlight: Buy Everything in Sight
In the medina I bought rugs, I bought blankets, I bought 100 pillows and poufs, I bought trays and ceramic boxes and lanterns and brass hardware. I went to Morocco with one suitcase and left with six extra suitcases. I was shopping until the moment my driver arrived to take me to the airport. Anything I could get my hands on, I bought it. I just went crazy (and you will too).
Navigational Tip: Just like Fes, you’ll need to find yourself walking taxis. Google Maps doesn’t work and no map makes any sense. imagine a bowl of spaghetti dropped down on a page–that it what Marrakesh’s maps look like.
Design Highlight: the Royal Mansour
This palatial, opulent luxury hotel was on our list of design sites to visit and it certainly delivered. It’s a former palace, made up of 53 private riads, and each room is designed to be a sensual journey. You don’t have to stay there, we just got dinner and cocktails, but it is an experience that eyes won’t soon forget.
Design Highlight: Yves Saint-Laurent Garden / Jardin Majorelle
Visiting this two-and-a-half acre botanical garden was easily one of the coolest things we did. Originally, it was created by a French Orientalist artist in the early 1920s before being bought and restored by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent in the 1980s. Today there is an unbelievable garden around the whole house, with a cacophony of cactuses, bamboo and succulents–it’s a must-see. Saint-Laurent actually gifted the property to the city of Marrakech after his death and his ashes are scattered through the gardens.
Design Highlight: Riad Dar Darma
The apartment I rented in this riad, within the city medina, looked like an actual movie set. It was the most unbelievable place I’ve ever stayed in, to date. My bedroom was a full apartment, which had a leopard on the floor, a whole dining area, crazy-large windows, and it was filled with antiques and just impeccably designed. In the courtyard, gigantic black vases and arched centre around a gorgeous fountain–it was unbelievable.
Pro Tip: Morocco is not Mexico
Shopping in Moroccan cities like Fes and Marrakech is not for the faint of heart. This is not Mexico, where everything is cute and made for tourists. You have to really dig in the medinas to find those gems. You can’t be intimidated. Just go everywhere and open every shop door and follow every curiosity and you shall be rewarded by discovering so many amazing pieces. I would go back once a year if I could just to do a big shopping trip.