Modern Marrakech Express

Modern Marrakech Express

Yann Dobry, Blouse

Moor, a clothing boutique in the Guéliz district, features colorful designs by Yann Dobry in an artfully decorated setting. Photo: Courtesy of Yann Dobry

Morocco is famous for its traditional craftsmanship, from mosaic tiling to intricate embroidery to enameled jewelry. These skills have been passed from master craftsmen to their apprentices for centuries, so it’s no surprise that the souks are overflowing with traditional shopping opportunities to this day, whether it’s an old-fashioned Arabian-style metal lantern, an incised brass table, or an embroidered leather pouf.

However, the last 20 years in Morocco have also seen the emergence of a new breed of designers with more contemporary interpretations of craft. Nowhere is this truer than in the city of Marrakech, home to hundreds of ateliers. With ready access to skilled artisans and plentiful materials, this new set of designers, Moroccan and expat, is refreshing and reinventing Moroccan craft. Innovative designs include housewares, fashion, jewelry, and beyond. 

Lamps and Lighting
When it comes to Moroccan décor, sumptuous textiles and saturated colors spring to mind. But taking their cues from organic and streamlined trends elsewhere, several Marrakech designers are putting a novel spin on home wares.

Souhail Tazi’s garage in his Marrakech villa serves as his atelier, and he’s quick to point out new creations – lamps big and small – to his guests. Tazi’s inclinations showed themselves early: “They called me Picasso in my family because I was always making art,” he says with a laugh. At 19, he left for France and dabbled in sculpture for many years before moving back to Morocco at 46 to become a full-time artist. He describes his series of one-of-a-kind lamps as having a “memory of Morocco,” drawing on the country’s carving techniques and its ubiquitous star motifs. Tazi also incorporates vintage lamp pieces into his work, reflecting the global upcycling movement.

At Lup31, the Marrakech shop and atelier of French-born Ludovic Petit, the designer adds his own mark to lighting. Although his background is in the Paris fashion world (including at Christian Lacroix), Petit has always been interested in interiors. “I made my interiors couture-worthy by using leftover fine dress fabrics for my curtains and upholstery,” he explains. He made an extended visit to Marrakech in 1996; inspired by what he saw, on a whim, he designed a candleholder that was a huge hit at the prestigious Paris art/craft expo Maison et Objet. Bolstered by his success, Petit bought one of Marrakech’s riads (a house with an interior courtyard) and threw himself into the world of Moroccan design. Lup31 now creates a full range of wares for the home but is perhaps best known for its lighting; his lanterns often maintain their iconic Arabian shapes but are crocheted or, in a nod to Petit’s fashion past, hand-embroidered, sometimes with crystals or beads.

On and Off the Runways
Much like Moroccan décor, Moroccan fashion often evokes images from The Arabian Nights, with women in long silken caftans, men in handwoven hooded robes, and everyone walking around in fanciful pointed slippers. (In fact, an entire souk in Marrakech is devoted to these Moroccan babouches – embroidered, sequined, or bejeweled.) On a more contemporary level, Caftan, Morocco’s annual fashion week, focuses on couture eveningwear, but daywear is increasingly where local designers are creating notable clothing.

Sublime clothes with intricate Moroccan embroidery and elaborate beading dazzle at Moor, in Marrakech’s Guéliz district. French designer Yann Dobry clearly has fashion in his DNA – his grandmother was head seamstress in a couturier atelier in Paris. Dobry describes a first trip to Marrakech in 1999 as love at first sight, and he bought an apartment to use as a pied-à-terre. Increasingly interested in Moroccan craftsmanship, he packed his bags and moved to Marrakech in 2004.  Dobry says he finds his creative inspiration all around him in the souks. “A beautiful antique necklace from [the city of] Taroudant might suddenly transform itself into a tunic in my head,” he explains, “and before I know it, the tunic’s on a hanger in my shop.”

For a change of pace, it’s decidedly Moroccan pop-modern at Riad Yima, designer Hassan Hajjaj’s courtyard house and boutique in the medina. Born in Morocco, “my parents were too poor to buy toys, so I made them myself from odd bits I found,” Hajjaj says. His father found work in England, taking the family to London in the 1960s; Hajjaj got involved in the club scene, where he befriended a fashion-oriented crowd. In 1984, he opened his first shop, RAP, soon becoming a stylist, fashion designer, and photographer in his own right.

A return trip to Morocco in 1993 reconnected him to his roots, and in 2001, he purchased Riad Yima. In addition to his photographs, which are collected internationally, he sells clothing, accessories, and housewares, often made out of recycled materials.

Standout Jewelers
As with interiors and fashion, a rich tradition in jewelry offers fodder for experimentation in design. Berber silver jewelry is one vein; and like its North African neighbors, Morocco has a gold souk in every city. However, among all the sparkle, two Marrakech-based jewelers shine especially bright on the Marrakech scene.

The Marrakech atelier of Julie Hawes, better known as “Jewels,” is filled not only with beads but also with cats (she has several). Hawes, an American citizen who divides her time between Marrakech and Santa Fe, spent her formative years in Tripoli, where she would accompany her Italian mother on shopping excursions, looking for strange and curious things. After majoring in art, she traveled to Morocco for the first time in her 20s, where she fell in love with Tangiers, and also began her jewelry making in earnest. Her work, which has garnered global accolades, integrates antique Moroccan elements, particularly those with magical or protective intent, such as amulets and talismans, as well as fossilized shell and bone.

On the fifth floor of a Marrakech apartment building is the atelier of British-born jeweler Joanna Bristow. After graduating with a degree in graphic design, Bristow worked with African artisans on a variety of jewelry projects for galleries, trusts, and the European Community. In 1997, she moved to Morocco to join her husband, photographer Alan Keohane, where she began designing jewelry, working in silver, gold plate, and gold, as well as with semi-precious stones. Bristow is inspired in particular by Tuareg patterns and has developed a signature patterned clasp that can be worn on the front or back of her pieces. More recently, she has found herself increasingly interested in Moroccan symbols and shapes, seen in a series of modern rings derived from the hand of Fatima, an ancient and widespread symbol said to protect the wearer. Bristow’s work can be seen in several galleries around Marrakech or at her studio.

These are just a few of the Marrakech artists who are melding centuries-old craftsmanship and artistic traditions with global trends. Many more await discovery in this vibrant North African city.

Maryam Montague is author of Marrakesh by Design and blogs at mymarrakesh.com from her home outside Marrakech.