Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


For centuries Morocco has been blessed with the good fortune of being right at the heart of one of the greatest crossroads in the world. This is where Africa meets Europe, where Arabia meets the West, where the desert meets the mountains and the ocean. Sitting on the axis of so many different trade routes has gifted Morocco a vibrant design culture and a unique legacy of craft and design, with sumptuous palaces, city riads arranged around green courtyards, hilltop kasbahs and enticing country houses. Now Morocco - and most especially Marrakech - are moving with the times and offering a sophisticated update to Moroccan style, drawing upon ideas and influences from a fresh influx of international settlers.

This is a country that has long had an intense fascination for travelers. In the 1920s and '30s, the French, British and other Europeans were seduced by Tangiers and the Moroccan coast. Later, in the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Willis and others made Marrakech highly fashionable and today the city is busily reinventing itself once again.

Nine years ago I published a book on Moroccan design and was startled by both the beauty of traditional arts and crafts and the way in which they were being reinvented in more contemporary forms. There are the geometrical mosaics known as zellige and the intricately carved decorative stucco plaster work, as well as building techniques such as pisé, or rammed earth. Returning to Morocco now, the design scene feels even more alive than ever, with plenty of evidence of a fresh craft revival as many new designers from the States, Europe and beyond mix Moroccan flavours with their own ideas.

Architects such as Studio KO, with offices in Paris and Marrakech, have used materials such as pisé and stone in contemporary ways to create wonderfully organic, crafted private homes. Others, such as American incomers Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes, have founded design companies that build on Moroccan craftsmanship. Their company, Popham Design, produces hand made tiles with a modern feel yet influenced by traditional patterns.

'The craft scene in Marrakech inspires us daily,' says Caitlin Dowe-Sandes. 'After more than four years in Marrakech we still get a thrill seeing what the artisans are up to and there is a lot of opportunity for experimentation.'

Perhaps the easiest way to get a picture of what new Moroccan style is all about is to stay in one of the new generation of hotels that have helped add an element of luxury and fresh character to one of the most intoxicating cities in North Africa, as well as the rich countryside surrounding Marrakech.

The newly completed Royal Mansour offers the ultimate taste of Moroccan style and sophistication right at the heart of the old city. Here, a short walk from the ever lively Djemma el-Fna market square, the Koutoubia mosque and the winding alleyways of the medina, King Mohammed VI and the royal family have created a luxurious city in miniature that showcases the best of Moroccan craft and design.

The hotel was created from nothing in just over three years, with as many as 1400 artisans a day working here, and the result is extraordinary. Fifty three separate riads were built from scratch, as well as the main hotel buildings, restaurants and a spa, as Parisian designers 3Bis Architecture and Decoration collaborated with a team of architects and Moroccan specialists in zellige, plasterwork and wood carving. Fully grown olive trees and palms were introduced within the pristine gardens that punctuate the buildings, offering up hidden courtyards and gently bubbling streams slotted into crisp walkways.

'The aim was to show what Morocco can offer in terms of architecture and craftsmanship and everything is made by hand,' says Kenza Zizi from the Royal Mansour. 'We wanted to recreate an old medina with the curving streets and a riad hidden behind each door.'

Our own riad was a true haven, with living spaces, bedrooms and epic bathrooms arranged over two floors around an internal courtyard. Up on the roof there is an oasis of calm, complete with a Bedouin style tent for shade and plunge pool for when things get too hot. The craftsmanship is exceptional, while more contemporary furniture and high tech comforts – including a retractable glass roof over the courtyard – bring everything right up to date. Our charming butler appeared magically with champagne on ice and explained – in perfect English, of course - that a maze of hidden service tunnels link the entire hotel, allowing a discreet flow of delights.

This is place where you can hide yourself away without being seen or troubled, choosing between the intimacy of your riad or more communal indulgences such as the spa – a mesmerizing contemporary design full of space and light – or the two restaurants, serving perfection on a plate. The Mansour is the ultimate designer haven in Marrakech, setting a whole new standard. Morocco has never seen anything quite like it before. - + 212 (0) 529 80 80 80

The last few years have seen a growing interest in designing alternatives to staying in the city of Marrakech and the idea of creating homes and hotels that make the most of the richly varied landscape that encircles the city. Close to a hamlet off the road to Ourzazate, south east of Marrakech, American designer, blogger and writer Maryam Montague and her architect husband Chris have created a new compound within a long established olive grove that includes two separate guest houses – the Peacock Pavilions – as well as their own family home.

The idea behind Peacock Pavilions was to create a country retreat, but within easy reach of the city itself. The pavilions are arranged around a communal pool and generous gardens but also have their own private entrances and terraces if guests want to keep themselves to themselves.

'The move to the countryside has allowed people to look at how to incorporate the outdoors and has toned down the inner focus that homes in Morocco tend to have,' says Maryam. 'In general there is a more sophisticated feel.'

The style of the architecture is a sympathetic, contemporary take on traditional Moroccan and Arabic ideas, fused with a sensitive approach to the landscape that integrates plenty of terraces and outdoor rooms. The interiors are eclectic, playful and full of interest, mixing pieces sourced from the Montagues' travels in India, Nepal, Namibia and North Africa, as well as many French colonial pieces and contemporary tiles from Popham Design.

The larger pavilion, the Medina Pavilion, has three bedrooms and a large living area. My own bedroom was up on the first floor, with its own private roof terrace, which offered up great views of the Atlas Mountains and made a perfect spot for watching the sun go down.

The Montagues also host occasional stenciling, photography and writing workshops at the Pavilions. 'We're trying to attract an audience where people can spend time connecting to nature,' says Maryam, 'It's a place that's stylish but where guests might also be able to learn a new skill or have some time for reflection.'

Further south of Marrakech, where the Ourika Valley begins to climb up into the mountains, Englishman Stephen Skinner has created a kasbah hotel up on a hilltop. Kasbah Bab Ourika feels as though it simply belongs here, but this is actually a totally new boutique hotel designed by Skinner, English architect and rammed earth specialist Argus Hardy and French designer Romain Michel-Ménière.

Skinner also runs a hotel in the city and was looking to buy a country house for himself when he found this extraordinary spot, with views of the rugged hills, ravines and mountains plus a vista back down the valley towards Marrakech. His plans grew into what became Bab Ourika, a fifteen room hotel along with restaurant, bar and lounges arranged around two internal courtyards, as well as gardens, terraces and a swimming pool.

Building the hotel was a brave challenge, given that it's at the end of a dirt track that deserves a four by four or a stress free lift in the hotel's own shuttle. But using earth from the site helped cut down on the materials needed, while local labour was used as much as possible. Michel-Ménière embraced the organic, rural character of the kasbah and used Berber rugs and textiles, as well as natural wall and floor finishes, along with more contemporary notes and furnishings.

'We had the idea of taking as many things as we could that are of the countryside and Berber villages and using them in a way that is comfortable and simple,' says Skinner. 'But there are not so many Moroccan elements that it all becomes too much. And one of the great things about the hotel is that every room has a view.'

My own room – 'Tigmi' – was a delight, with an almost minimalist restraint warmed by all the organic tones and a beautiful fireplace, which made a perfect bedtime companion. The restaurant is also a treat, fusing Moroccan, English and European ideas into a seductive fusion menu. Kasbah Bab Ourika is a wonderful escape from everything – a place for relaxation, walking, swimming and simple pleasures. – 00 212 524 48 20 20

The Palmeraie has become one of the great treasures of Marrakech, luring in many creative settlers tempted by easy proximity to the city as well as its instant feeling of escapism and exoticism. The former plantation has seen many designer houses created within its rugged landscape. But Meryanne Loum-Martin was one of the first to see the potential of the Palmeraie as a retreat for hotel guests as well, creating Jnane Tamsna.

Formerly a Parisian lawyer, Loum-Martin had long harboured ambitions to be an architect and designer. In the Palmeraie she was able to finally indulge her passions, creating a walled oasis containing not just her own home but a self-designed boutique hotel nestling within gardens designed by her husband, Gary Martin, an American botanist.

'I fell totally in love with the place,' says Loum-Martin. 'I decided to share my passion with more people and turn it into a business. After two weeks of living in Morocco full time my husband and I looked at each other and it was obvious that we were not going to leave.'

With ten bedrooms in the main section of the hotel, as well as other pavilions and houses to rent in the grounds, Jnane Tamsna is small enough to feel very special but with plenty of room to feel at home and relaxed. The architecture and design mixes Moorish flavours with a contemporary sensibility, while responding to the unique setting of the Palmeraie. The latest addition is a small craft and design store within the old – and unused – television lounge.

Loum-Martin is just starting work on a second hotel, Jnane Ylane, as well as private villas for sale. For the new project she and Martin hope to take the idea of an eco resort one step further, integrating a whole variety of eco friendly technologies and ideas into the design of the buildings and grounds.

In the meantime, Jnane Tamsna remains a wonderfully accessible and alluring retreat, a short drive away from the frenetic bustle of old Marrakech. – + 212 (0) 524 32 84 84

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