Morocco travel and riads were inspirational for designers and style gurus even before Yves Saint Laurent and the 1960s hippies arrived, and the magic still works today.
Moroccan décor and riads were more or less closed books to designers, writers, artists and gourmets until the country came under French influence in the late 19th century. Anyone interested in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture and artefacts looked instead to Egypt, Turkey or the Lebanon. But just before World War I, Morocco became the ‘in’ place for those in search of fresh ideas, and not just because getting there across the Straits of Gibraltar was a comparatively simple matter.
French design at the time was much influenced by the fluidly impressionistic, nature-inspired, Art Nouveau style, made famous by such companies as Tiffany and Liberty, and was seen as a liberating influence from the heavier, flouncy, well-padded look of La Belle Epoch. It may seem surprising that such a style exported well to Morocco in the form of new French quarters and shops grafted onto ancient towns such towns as Casablanca, Tangiers and Marrakesh.
However the Sunni form of Islam dominant in Morocco was more accepting of outside influences than some other forms, and a cross-fertilisation of styles proved fruitful for both. Light, loose Moroccan clothes and drapes, vibrant Berber rugs, tiles and exotic Moroccan furniture, lanterns, tile work and wood carving came to Europe via France, along with the traditional Moroccan use of spices and tajines for cooking.
In Morocco, artists like Jacques Majorelle found inspiration for both garden and house designs as well as in the bright sunlight, blue skies, exotic Berber colours, weaving, jewellery and ceramics. The House of Dior’s chief designer, Yves Saint Laurent, was also much influenced by taking over Jacques Majorelle’s former house and garden in Marrakesh. Hippies were bowled over by it. Crosby, Stills and Nash in their iconic hit, Marrakesh Express, sang of ‘Striped djellabas we can wear at home . . .’.
Marrakesh Riads Style
Among the latest style hits are riad hotels. Riads are merchants’ town houses of several storeys built in typical Moroccan style round a central tiled courtyard garden, often with a small fountain. They are found in towns such as Marrakesh, Casablanca and Tangiers. Many of these fascinating buildings with handcrafted wooden doors, lattice-work screen, stained glass windows, delicate plasterwork and tiles had fallen into neglect and had become overcrowded tenements for poor families. Slowly they were rediscovered and renovated, many becoming restaurants or hotels. Riad style includes:
Low coffee tables, merchants’ chests and other furniture in dark wood, often inlaid with bone and other woods.
Ironwork lanterns and lamps with coloured glass panes.
Use of large silk or embroidered cushions, rugs, carpets and ‘throws’.
Tile work often in blue, white and yellow, terracotta pots and glazed ceramic cooking ware (tajines, large serving plates) in vibrant colours.
Wooden screens, fabric headboards, latticed shutters and heavy wooden metal-studded doors.
Small water features incorporated in a courtyard-style garden.
Today’s trends tend to be away from the cluttered, opulent or hippie effects of earlier Moroccan inspired style, and towards the ‘less is more’ use of such features sparingly and for focus.
Moroccan Slippers, Fashion, Caps and Berber Jewellery
Favourite clothes to bring home include:
Floating scarves and light over-shirts in silk or cotton which make good beach cover-ups or nightwear.
Heavily embroidered, and often unisex tunics and waistcoats for evening wear.
Hand-knittted woollen hats (good for skiing) or embroidered caps.
Moroccan slippers (babouches) and other leather goods, especially larger bags.
Lighter goods to bring home for a touch of Moroccan style would also include spices, silver jewellery, small carved wood items especially rare thuya wood, wall hangings and traditional glasses for mint tea. The better shops in most towns will offer to airfreight or ship home bulkier items.
Not going to Morocco? Find more home design tips here.