Preface by Cara, our Principal
Copyright AIMTours 2023
I love these anecdotes and knowledgeable words of advice below from Pauline, an interior designer with a Master degree in interior design and a long career in publishing on that subject; who splits her time between North Morocco and the UK.
I also muse sometimes as to why we do that. Why is there this little community of western women, often creative and often from the anglophone world, who live and/or work part of our lives in Morocco, a country apparently so different from our origins?
I have concluded that the one thing I share with all the western ladies I know who do this, is that subconsciously perhaps, we are all looking for our real home, where we feel we truly belong and deep down we do not feel it is where we come from. How does that feeling of estrangement from origins and the seeking of connection elsewhere, arise? Well, that is a story isn’t it, of a voyage that goes deep inside, on a journey through our psychological landscapes, rather than a subject for a blog post about exploring Morocco.
As for Pauline specifically, I like what she told me the first time I met her in Morocco, about Tangier and the nearby fishing village of Asilah suiting her, because she felt both European, due to her Britishness and also African, due to her childhood in South Africa. That is why she and her family settled in artistic Asilah in Morocco, from where, on a clear day, you can see the European landmass (Southern Spain) across the straits, while having your feet firmly planted on African soil.
Her artistic locale at a geographical crossroads, reflects back to her who she is and thus is where she feels “at home”. Perhaps she feels some sense of comforting calibration between distance and closeness, familiarity and intrigue, intimacy and desire, even anxiety and ennui; a quivering equanimity which I believe is also the basis for love and for beauty and is, according to French culture at least, the closest state to happiness that the human condition can achieve.
I hope some of you will likewise meet Pauline on our interior design tour that is envisaged for 2025, here.
Another thing, on a more prosaic note, Pauline talks below about wicker products. Australian customs aren’t overly fond of wicker products; any animal or plant product for that matter, particularly if untreated. Just bear that in mind too. I am not saying you would definitely be banned from bringing such items back into Australia, but at least you need to take care to remember to declare them, if required, at the time of re-entry.
I note Pauline spells it Assilah and I spell it Asilah! A bit like tomato and tomate-o, or potato and potate-o I guess! Actually does anyone say “potato” like an aussie says “tomato”? I am starting to confuse myself. Ha ha.
For the rest: Read on and Enjoy! I know it is a long blog post, but it is just too good.
Moroccan Interior Inspiration – some notes on how to scour the souks for style from an interior designer living in the medina…
By: Pauline de Villiers Brettell
My first trip to Morocco was for work, way back when, as Décor Editor of a South African magazine and the whole experience drew me in and won me over. If I am being honest, as a young interior designer based in Cape Town at the time, I was much more excited by the prospect of a visit to the Conran Shop in London than the proposed shopping trip to a souk! Boho chic wasn’t a thing and the monochrome Beni Ouarain hadn’t yet been re-discovered as the must-have item in a Scandi-Ethnic aesthetic.
How times have changed . . .
Elements of Moroccan design are now firmly part of our décor directory and adding a little bit of Morocco into your home on the opposite side of the world can be done by a simple click on a carpet on Etsy, or a lantern on eBay*.
*Cara’s note: Of course, such online purchases are void of any linked recollection of the wizened face of the old man in the Aladdin’s cave of lamps in the medina, with whom you shared a mint tea. Or of the elderly lady in the desert, living in the underground community at Zagora to escape the heat, from whom you purchased a carpet she had woven, bearing traditional symbols of her tribe.
If you are lucky enough to go to Morocco yourself and want to do a little lifestyle shopping in person, here are a few key tips with which to start. My first five tips are of a more general nature, before moving on to the product specifics.
1: This first suggestion requires some imagination – try to imagine the item in your line of vision, out of the medina.
Walking around the shops in a medina and the workshops in the souk, is a sensory overload. You won’t see a few carefully curated items displayed in a window – instead you will be confronted with rows and piles of pouffes, carpets and babouches in every style, shape and colour. Focus on what you want and don’t get distracted – once you have that pouffe or carpet unpacked and in your home, it will look a lot more impressive and make a much stronger design statement than when it was hanging on that hook alongside 300 others.
2: Quality control is key.
Don’t be pressurised or rushed when you are shopping, either by the merchants or your fellow travellers. Take your time and look carefully at seams and zips, threads and hems. There might be a reason why that basket or cushion around the corner is half the price of the first one you saw, so it is important to look with a critical eye and understand that it might be worth spending a little bit more for a lot better quality.
3: Research your wish-list.
Do some research into the items you like before you even start shopping so you have some idea of what you are looking for and what would be a reasonable price point. I’m talking more about the investment items here like carpets. BUT before you start bartering and beating down the price – keep in mind that a lot of these crafts and artisanal goods are handmade and time consuming. This is especially important if you are buying directly from the maker, or a cooperative. It is also worth noting that a lot of the traders are, thanks to online shopping, completely aware of the retail value of the crafts – especially the carpets.
4: Keep an open mind.
Be prepared to fall in love with the unexpected. You may have done your research, spent hours on Pinterest and finally walk into the carpet shop, measurements in hand with a clear idea of that minimalist Beni Ourain carpet for your inner-city loft apartment. And then you see that vibrant pink and green vintage Telsint carpet with a worn through patch in the corner . . . Go with your heart is my advice!!
5: Get help from an expert.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you are wanting to do some serious shopping and sourcing, it is often worthwhile finding someone local to work with. When I have a client, I take them directly to the artisans and merchants I know and work with – there will be a fee involved but it will be worth your while in terms of time and money saved and the experience had – and hopefully reflect equally in the quality of the items you take home.
So, moving onto specifics . . .
LIGHTING is one of the key elements when introducing a Moroccan feel to any interior. A handmade lantern that throws a beautiful shadow can immediately transport you back to that desert camp or rooftop in the medina. You can have a simple contemporary interior, add some textured lighting and it will soften the edges. The hand-beaten and pierced copper and pewter lamps are perfect for creating soft and magical effects. A top tip, and one that I have only learned recently, is to drop the light bulb really low into the lantern when hanging it, for the maximum shadow effect. Framed glass lanterns are another favourite although they are a little more difficult to transport. On that first trip I made to Morocco, I travelled all the way back to South Africa with a large Moroccan lantern on my seventh month pregnant lap – granted, luggage restrictions were a little less stringent back then, but it filled me with joy every time I flicked the switch and lit up that glass faceted star on the other side of the continent.
CARPETS are perfect for grounding an interior and pulling a scheme together and are also the obvious item on the top of peoples Moroccan Interior Shopping lists and, trust me, the minute you hit the ground in the medina you will be spoilt for choice. Do have a clear idea of what you are looking for but, as I said earlier keep an open mind because you will see carpets and designs that have never crossed your décor mind. If you are planning to travel beyond the medina, do some research into carpet and craft co-operatives to be able to buy directly from the artisans and where you can be sure that a fair price is being paid to the weaver or maker. When it comes to packing and shipping, most carpet merchants have this down to a fine art! You will be amazed at how efficiently a big lumpy carpet is rolled and tied and ready to ship. Most shops will be happy to ship for you* and in my experience, are completely reliable. Alternatively find a local DHL agency (simply because there are a lot around and they are the easiest to find and deal with) and sort out the shipping yourself. Keep in mind import duty, which differs from country to country.
* Cara’s note: I am not as confident as Pauline appears to be about leaving it to shops to ship. But it is her area of expertise, not mine.
CUSHIONS and POUFFES are a great option for those with carpet commitment issues! From a rainbow of scattered cushions to an oversized floor cushion or the perfect pouffe – all are great for adding a bit of Morocco into your home without feeling like you are breaking the bank or your luggage allowance. Plus, they have the added benefit of being useful padding (perfect for wrapping that ceramic tagine or teapot in your suitcase). Sometimes all you need is one beautiful vintage kelim cushion to add a focal point of colour and texture to any interior. I am a great believer in the ‘less is more’ approach when it comes to adding elements of Moroccan décor to your home. Seeing a beautiful Moroccan textile in a more neutral environment gives it the space to breath and it becomes a work of art, rather than another cushion in a pile of colour.
Pouffes come in a range of shapes and colours and can be easily flattened for packing. Once home be aware that the leathery smell of the souk can hang around for a while* -my kids always complain with wrinkled noses when I come home bearing leather pouffes – but rest assured it will fade. I am also frequently asked what to use to fill a pouffe. You have a few options for stuffing – a bag of commercial stuffing is easily bought online, if you live in the countryside, some hay from a friendly farmer does the trick, as do old cushions or even old clothes. The simple answer is basically anything!
* Cara’s note: Yes!
THROWS are another tactile textile option and are such an easy way to introduce a little movable Moroccan colour and texture into any interior. If you have the opportunity, try and go to a weavers’ souk where you will see the handloomed process from start to finish. Again, there is an endless choice of colours and designs and threads, from light woven silk with a sheen, to heavy natural wools and jutes. My personal favourites are the vintage Handira (wedding) blankets which are a wonderful combination of sequinned Berber bling sewn onto a simple woollen weave. As with carpets, designs can vary regionally so it is a good idea to try and find out what are the local traditions and weaves . We recently made a trip to the hilltop town of Ouazzane in Northern Morocco where regional olive oil and woollen textiles* were on the top of our list – we weren’t disappointed in either and the woollen blankets I bought were notably different from those you usually see in the bigger cities.
* Cara’s note: Sounds interesting!
And at the risk of repeating myself – again think outside that box . . . a throw can be made into cushions, can be used as a curtain, sewn into a blind or even thrown across your shoulders as a shawl.
TILES of course are everywhere in Morocco. From small decorative ceramic tiles (zellige) to larger handmade cement (encaustic) tiles, and they are a great way to add Moroccan pattern and colour – these tiles are available in a variety of shapes and forms and most of the makers are able to ship. Even if you don’t want to buy any tiles, I always love watching the alchemy of cement tiles being made – each one by hand.
CERAMICS are bit more difficult to pack – but remember those cushions and throws you bought earlier? Perfect to wrap around any fragile or breakable items. If food is your thing, then tagines and bowls are kitchen essentials. When doing some tagine shopping, be aware that not all tagines are good for cooking. Some of the more decorative and highly glazed ones are not advised to cook with due to lead content in the glazes. Again, be aware of quality as it is easy to get into a flurry of ceramic buying and then get home to find a few chips and cracks.
The unique colours and shapes of Tamegroute pottery have a more handmade and tactile quality. I love the distinctive glaze of these beautiful bowls and irregular jugs. In the north, the Rif pottery is quite distinctive in its simplicity. Simple terracotta forms are decorated with ancient Berber symbols that hark back to tribal talismans
**Cara’s note: Continues to amaze me the echoes between Sicilian and Moroccan artisanry and why I am so looking forward to our Northern Morocco-Sicily group tour planned for 2025 here.
SCENTED lotions, potions and candles are perfect if suitcase space and budget is limited and candles are as important to a home as books and flowers in my opinion. Have a look for some of the beautiful, scented candles in pretty containers – every time you light it up, the soft light and the scent will add a note of Morocco wherever you are*. Essential oils and handmade soaps can also be found and are perfect to slip into your suitcase (with the added benefit of detracting from that leathery pouffe smell!) If you want good quality organic scents and oils, it is probably worth shopping for these items in the more boutique style concept and lifestyle stores that are popping up.
* Cara’s note: Love that idea. Scent is so evocative!
WOODEN utensils are both a practical item and an aesthetic one. The hand carved soup spoons traditionally used for Harira soup are beautifully tactile. Tiny spoons perfect for salt and pepper and spices are another favourite. If you are able to experience a country market, have a look at the authentic practical appliances and utensils on display and often found alongside piles of plastic kitchenware. Recently, at one of these markets, some strange somewhat sculptural objects caught my eye – the original whisk! A wooden kitchen aid used very specifically for ‘blending’ the pulses of a b’sarra (bean) soup. These are now proudly displayed in my kitchen. *
*Cara’s note: Lurve to see these! Lurve the idea of market investigations.
WICKERware is another craft that you will see in so many shapes and forms in the markets of Morocco. From chairs and tables through to shaggy on-trend lampshades that look like they need a haircut. No such thing as too many baskets either in my opinion, so a visit to the wicker weavers’ workshop is always worth the effort. Moroccan interior inspiration is all about textures and craft, and this certainly ticks both those boxes*.
*Cara’s note: Sometimes these are so artistic! However, see my comments above about Australian customs.
And finally, don’t forget MODERN MOROCCO
While the cacophony of colour in the medina is oh-so-tempting, take time to have a look at some contemporary Moroccan design as well. There is a wealth of creativity and talent that is taking inspiration from the rich visual history and transforming this aesthetic into wonderful pieces of art, furniture, textiles and lighting. So, my final advice is go beyond the medina and discover and support the creativity that is pushing the boundaries of Moroccan design.
**A list of interior design contact details in North Morocco will be posted in Client Resources on our website, for clients only, shortly.
Also Pauline will soon share her own story with us of renovating a Dar in Northern Morocco. I stayed there pre-reno and I am blown away by the photos of it afterwards.
If you are interested in this group tour here. or you want to incorporate ideas from it in your private tour, let me know via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published March 2023