Morrocco has long been a 'go to' destination for the well informed, the glamorous, the mysterious and those seeking exotic and luxurious design inspiration. Yves Saint Laurent famously owned the Majorelle Gadrens, and British department store Liberty of London has always been renowned for it's selection of fine [if you have to ask the price you can't afford it] Oriental and Berber rugs.
Inevitable therefore is Design Trawler's first trip to Morocco - to capture the richness that this unique culture presents. With its North African tradition and French influences, craft and effortless style is to be expected. Of particular interest is how these traditional aesthetics remain relevant in today's top-tier Moroccan environments... and how exporting this back to London might be appropriate. The first challenge therefore is finding a top tier Moroccan environment.
If I had an antique, hand woven Berber rug for every time I've heard that the souks of Marrakech provide an Aladdin's cave of Moroccan enlightenment, well, I'd be able to give Bruce Lepere a run for his money. Sure, the souks provide a rat run of spice sellers, snake charmers and obligatory haggling, but beyond the identikit lamps, teapots and tagine dishes, the souk provides about as much insight in to Moroccan design as wondering the aisles of Tesco will teach you about William Morris wallpaper.
No. The souk isn't where you go to be inspired. For authentic design inspiration, a visit to a traditional Moroccaan Riad is called for. The immensely cool and private style of architecture found across cities like Marrakech call for an open courtyard in the centre of the building, on to which all rooms face. Not only does this mean that the insides of the exterior walls are left windowless; and therefore provide ample 'wall estate' for decoration; but also, that the architecture of the outside merges with that of the inside. Stone, ceramics, vegetation, fountains and pools all traditionally associated with outdoor living become an integral part of a buildings interior aesthetic and design.
La Sultana Marrakech, on the prestigious Rue de la Kasbah, reigns supreme in this case. Five traditional Moroccan Riad's which over two years have been converted in to one effortless, elegant and exotic inter-connecting architectural experience. With just 28 rooms and suites, La Sultana is part of the Small Leading Hotels of the World and a host of other top tier hotelier directories [The group also operates a particularly Hercule Poirot style private yacht which cruises the Western Mediterranean with equal levels of debonair nonchalance]
After you are greeted at the imposing gilded doors and whisked up to the expensive roof terrace for check-in [fresh mint tea and local pastries obligatory], you'll begin to learn about the diversity of Moroccan design and architecture. Echoing the excitement and mystery of the local streets, the five Riads are connected through the most remarkable and maze-like public spaces. Sultry curving staircases in marble, private pavilions with rose-covered fountains, symmetrical gabled corridors with bold lamps and poolside terraces with fragrant palms make it an absolute joy to get lost in.
The most interesting things about La Sultana is the aforementioned variety in local architectural style. From the Berber to the Andalusian, through to African and Islamic styles, each courtyard provokes a fresh take on what is so often painted with the same brush of 'Moroccan style'. Take for example the dark woods and use of leathers and animal horn in the traditionally African style; completely different to the mesmerising intricate carved plasterwork and marble of the Islamic style. The red clay tiles and vaulted ceilings of the European style wouldn't look out of place in the castle cellars of Central Europe, and La Sultana's architectural ironmongery and jade coloured roof tiles have a decidedly Franco-Oriental aesthetic.
It takes a Riad with the [relative] scale of La Sultana to offer such an experience, and because of its uncommonly large size, La Sultana is also able to offer one of the largest roof terraces in the Medina. Equally iconic as the courtyard, the roof terrace echoes St. Tropez or Miami with it's swathes of white curtains, modern rattan loungers, palms and attentive service. Unlike St. Tropez or Miami however, the breathtaking snow-capped Atlas Mountains linger on the horizon while birds glide for hours on the warm currents; circling the Saadian Tombs and Koutoubia Mosque a short stroll away.
Despite the prevalence of a number of strong antique and design shops and galleries in the city, it's unlikely that you'll be able to carry home a hand-carved balustrade or mahogany front door in the Andalusian style. What you *will* be able to take home however, is the richness of experience from La Sultana... and for those who prefer something a little more tangible, an enduring take-away [literally] is La Sultana's professional cookery school which takes place daily on the stunning terrace. No tourist-trap, the La Sultana school caters for groups of up to ten with individual Bosch gas burners, professional kitchenware and the epitome of any good kitchen worth it's [lemon preserved] salt, shiny pull-out style taps. You'll be able to rustle up an authentic tagine in less time than it takes to fly from London to Marrakesh; and in case you'd really rather not endure the souk, if you ask nicely, La Sultana will pop out and fetch you a clay tagine dish to match your tastefully monogrammed apron.
So next time you're invited for dinner at the oh-so-trendy Moroccan restaurant in London, not only will you be able to identify the interior aesthetic as a patronising blend of pastiche Arabian Nights which fails to recognise the the Moorish influences on Berber design, but also that tagine should be eaten with olives and not french fries. But, then again, perhaps it's best to leave the enlightenment to La Sultana.