Meet the Makers Combining Marrakech’s Artisanal Past with Modern Design

A new set of creators are tapping into Marrakech’s craft heritage to give the city even greater influence on the global stage.
Straight from the Source A New Generation of Creatives Is Tapping Marrakech's Artisanal Past Laurence Leenaert
Jack Johns

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When I bought and renovated my house in the Fès medina in 2009, everyone asked me where I sourced my interiors. A bit guiltily, I'd confess: Marrakech. Fès may be the city of artisans, but Marrakech has always been the real jewel when it comes to shopping. My midcentury-modern-style kitchen chairs came from a no-name stall on a dusky little square near the now rather chic Souk Cherifia; my bold cream, orange, green, and black striped curtains from the tiniest hole-in-the-wall near the Palais Bahia specializing in antique African cloth. I used to scour the souk at Bab el Khemis—still Morocco's most fruitful flea market—for vintage lamps and bigger pieces to get reupholstered or sprayed with automotive paint (the design hack of the day).

The Atlas Mountains, Marrakech’s famous backdrop

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If you can dream it, you can do it in Marrakech. Stories abound of Yves Saint Laurent, Talitha Getty, Bill Willis (the visionary behind Getty's riad), and their freewheeling bohemian crowd roaming the souks in the 1960s. A wealth of ancestral skills have permeated life here for centuries. Everywhere you look there's something to discover, like the reed storage baskets and hand-carved wooden spoons in the Rahba Kedima, where I'll always stop and have a glass of tea with Rachid, who made the shopping baskets for my cooking school in Fès.

Globally, there's recently been a renewed drive toward slow design, the handmade and small-batch, in which provenance is as celebrated as the finished product. Dior looked to Moroccan craftspeople for its 2020 cruise show, and Yves Saint Laurent Beauty recently established a permanent botanical research center and gardens in Ourika Valley, overseen by a local women's cooperative, for its new skin-care line. But the seeds of a well-established, resident creative community had started to sprout long before these major labels found inspiration here.

A street scene near the central Bab Taghzout area

Jack Johns

Today's next generation of designers is combining the city's rich craft heritage with an understanding of modern design and technology, along with an openness to reference points beyond Morocco's borders. Now a new type of product is emerging: heirloom rugs you design yourself, handcrafted tiles in millions of configurations, haute couture caftans in boldly contemporary prints. The independent brands that make these things have become synonymous with the city's identity. Most of their founders have spent years living in Marrakech, cultivating relationships with their partners, scaling their ateliers to offer better environments with attractive pay and benefits. For women, especially, many of whom work on a per-item basis, this approach has been a game changer, giving them greater financial autonomy as they hone their innate savoir faire into a more modern aesthetic.

“For us it's really important that what we offer attracts young people back into weaving,” say Tiberio Lobo-Navia, a New York transplant who founded Beni Rugs with Robert Wright in 2015. “By protecting these skills handed down through generations while addressing the needs of the global market today, it starts to look like a really attractive career.”

Moroccan entrepreneurs are also putting their own spin on their cultural heritage. “The purpose of small brands is to be super bespoke, and here I have the flexibility to be so,” says Meriem Nour, who designs under her label, Hanout Boutique. Likewise, Khouloud Belkahia is taking time-tested craft traditions and updating them for a new audience at her modern Moroccan bistro, which doubles as a showcase for her contemporary takes on traditional table- and glassware.

This spirit of knowledge, inspiration, and creative exchange has brought together the local and international community more than ever. Rebecca Wilford of Hamimi started out shipping items to Australia, her home country, but eventually moved the brand to Marrakech, where it now provides work for between 30 and 40 artisans: “It's one of the last places in the world where you can find this expertise,” Wilford says.

Meet the makers: interiors

The result of all this creative input is a dynamic community whose members prize all things handcrafted, made to order, inclusive, and customizable: “Appreciation, rather than appropriation, is key,” says Caitlin Dowe-Sandes of Popham Design, which turns out around 1 million bespoke tiles per year. The city's growing stable of fashion brands tells a similar story. Former New York photographer Randall Bachner started Marrakshi Life in 2013 to help sustain Moroccan weaving traditions. Meanwhile, Algerian-born fashion designer Norya Nemiche of the label Norya Ayron reimagined the abaya, a traditional garment worn by some Muslim women, with the American rapper and actor Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def, remarking that she had “democratized North African dress.” Nemiche says, “In Marrakech, my seamstresses were able to realize what I could only see in my head.” With so few places left in the world where it's possible to work so closely with such skilled artisans, Marrakech is much more than a colorful muse—it's a thriving, collaborative hub for next-generation creativity.

Popham studio’s showroom

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Popham Design founders Samuel and Caitlin Dowe-Sandes

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The atelier for Popham Design, with tiles inspired by Berber color patterns

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Samuel and Caitlin Dow-Sandes

The husband-and-wife team first came to Marrakech from L.A. on a yearlong sabbatical from their careers in film and P.R. but ended up buying and renovating a house in the medina. “We'd never seen the crafts of Morocco,” Caitlin Dowe-Sandes recalls, “but gradually we started to get to know the makers, and when it came time to replace the tiles in the house we thought maybe we could apply our own designs to the technique.” Three early patterns—which they dubbed loop, wink, and zigzag—were striking enough that a friend asked if they'd be open to doing a magazine shoot. When the fact-checker called to ask whom to credit for the tiles, the duo hurriedly set up a company and a website to coincide with publication, and Popham Design was born. Today the company provides tiles to design hotels, restaurants, and homes all over the world, including Soho Beach House Miami. “Because we are here on the ground we've been able to be very reactive—do small, bespoke projects, which makes it very special. That's a fun point of distinction,” Caitlin says. They offer more than 150 patterns in more than 150 colors, allowing for almost endless configurations. Their other recent projects include the a collection of brass lighting and a backgammon board, which may be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. 

Textile designers Robert Wright and Tiberio Lobo-Navia

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Their dog Beni

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Robert Wright and Tiberio Lobo-navia

After a trip to Marrakech in 2015, Tiberio Lobo-Navia and Robert Wright realized that buying a rug from afar could be a maddening process. “You can't feel the quality or texture, and the sizes are off because these rugs were not made for Western living spaces,” Lobo-Navia explains. “That's when the light went on for us.” Before launching Beni Rugs, the duo invested two and a half years in learning and documenting the process of traditional rug making that uses natural wool rinsed in the Oum Er-Rbia River and is dyed with natural pigments derived from North African herbs. They scaled production so that customers could choose the size, background colors, patterns, and finishing details, like tassels, on an online platform. Their team has grown from six looms and 12 women weavers to 150 looms and 300 women, plus 15 men who wash and dry the rugs, all working from the Middle Atlas or their new base in Tameslouht, about 30 minutes from Marrakech. This fall they will launch a collaboration with cult interior designer Athena Calderone of Eyeswoon, and this summer they open a splashy industrial-scale showroom and atelier where visitors can hang out, sip spritz, and discover the brand. 

Hamimi Earrings

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Hamimi founder Rebecca Wilford

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Rebecca Wilford

Designer Rebecca Wilford operates out of an airy studio on the west side of Marrakech that she shares with her husband, the celebrated contemporary Moroccan artist Larbi Cherkaoui. Her label, Hamimi, works with a small all-female team to produce limited-edition brass jewelry, soft leather handbags, and crocheted lampshades. The last collection was inspired by a local woman who was helping to look after Wilford's young son. “I got to talking to her one day about women who crochet men's skullcaps and started exploring how we could twist it into something new,” Wilford explains. A line of pendant lamps inspired by the classical shape of a Moroccan tagine emerged. “We didn't want to dilute the integrity of handmade. Instead, we try to honor everybody who has made each lamp; that's our emphasis, so every lamp is produced to order.” Now with 16 colors to choose from, Hamimi is fast becoming a cornerstone of Marrakech design. 

Laurence Leenaert

Laurence Leenaert in Sidi Ghanem

Jack Johns

Belgian-born Laurence Leenaert is well-established in the contemporary Moroccan design vernacular through her label LRNCE, which creates ceramics decorated in bold, fluid geometric patterns that can be spotted at hotels from Menorca Experimental to Parilio on the Greek island of Paros. But with a new collection of paintings, Leenaert is exploring another discipline. Her space in Sidi Ghanem, an industrial quarter of the city, opened at the start of 2020, flows over two floors and a rooftop that serves as a studio, showroom, and events hub where clients can view works like her Sound of Sun series—an interpretation of life in Marrakech. “My framed works begin as sketches for rugs and blankets,” Leenaert says. “I'm always drawing lines, or cutting things out, or adding elements, based on what I see around me.” She created her latest ceramics with master craftsmen from Safi who are known for their pottery. The addition of textural grooves means they take three times as long to make as her hand-painted line, but the approach adds a unique, sculptural element to each piece that is worthy of the term art. 

A shrimp dish at Azalai Urban Souk, where the bowl is also for sale

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Housewares at Azalai

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A hammered tray at Azalai

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Khouloud Belkahia

Azalai Urban Souk is a small restaurant and shop that Khouloud Belkahia founded just as Marrakech went into lockdown in early 2020. Having previously run a small group of boutique hotels with her ex-husband, Belkahia understood that “people have a great sensitivity to detail—one that is not necessarily about a material value but rather an emotional value, a detail which has a story to tell.” Riffing on her passion for food, she carries tableware by other artisans, such as flat-top tagines and a three-legged cup, all available for purchase. They're paired with a healthy Moroccan menu that spins authentic flavors and techniques into dishes that embody the way we eat now: bowls of quinoa rather than couscous, topped with avocado and chermoula prawns, and decadent gluten-free baked goods. 

Meet the makers: fashion

Meriem Nour

Meriem Nour, known for designs that nod to Moroccan tailoring history, inside her Hanout Boutique

Jack Johns

Tucked away in Riad Zitoun's dusty alleyways, Meriem Nour's Hanout Boutique gleams. The 200-year-old showroom has been painted a cool white and outfitted with filigreed plaster arches with racks of loosely tailored two-piece suits in graphic stripes, kimono-inspired dresses in Warhol-ish power florals, and intricately embroidered leather jackets. The youngest of five girls in a family who all worked in Moroccan fashion, Nour studied at Central Saint Martins, where she ended up designing a range of caftans for Selfridges. But her heart was always back home in Marrakech. During lockdown, she used the time to turn the immense stock of fabrics she has collected from around the world into pieces she was passionate about—with big volumes, architectural cuts, frilly collars—finished with traditional Moroccan embellishments. In the process she's brought a glamorous touch to a wardrobe that translates seamlessly across borders. 

hand-weaving sustainable fabrics at Marrakshi Life

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Marrakshi Life

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Randall Bachner

Twenty minutes from the medina, in Sidi Ghanem, the expansive headquarters of Marrakshi Life are a hive of activity. What Randall Bachner started with a single weaver has since grown into an all-Moroccan team of 30. The ultrawearable, loose-cut unisex designs are sustainably crafted: The company is zero-waste (remnants are reused in future creations) and dedicated to the preservation of artisanal weaving techniques, creating a collaborative community vibe with garments often woven from the weaver's own designs. “I didn't know anything about weaving,” Bachner says. “My team has taught me a lot. Although our color palette remains fairly consistent, we work from organic or existing shapes which evolve into something like the Tuareg dress, with the help of our tailor Rachid, who has a really strong feel for fashion and can translate our ideas.” Customers' perennial favorite is the unisex lab coat, a medina work jacket worn by Bachner's oldest weaver, Mohamed Ait Lahcen. 

The storefront at Norya Aryon, favorited by  A-listers

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Norya Nemiche at her store, which opened in Marrakech in 2013

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designer Norya Nemiche wearing a ring she designed

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Norya Nemiche

In 2013, the self-taught Algerian fashion designer Norya Nemiche was thinking about leaving Morocco when a friend offered her a workspace above his restaurant, Le Jardin; on a whim she decided to use it as the launchpad for Norya Ayron, her first line of clothing, sewn by local seamstresses from fabrics she found in the souks. Ten days later her first collection was ready, and within a few months the likes of Sandra Oh and Monica Bellucci were wearing her label, seduced by its flamboyant colors and patterns cut into a more feminine, streamlined silhouette than classic caftans and abayas. At the end of 2019, Nemiche opened a second showroom and atelier with a funky Art Deco feel in the heart of Gueliz to coincide with the launch of a line of her own textile designs. It offers shoppers an extensive range of fabrics, from swirls and stripes to exuberant prints inspired by butterflies and botanical gardens in far-off lands, alongside a tight edit of different cuts, from traditional North African dresses to floor-length shirts.

This article appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.