Less is Moor

Minimal Moroccan is the Nineties version of Seventies hippie-trail chic - jewel-coloured walls and a discreet scattering of North African treasures. James Sherwood reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The European love affair with Morocco is as time-honoured a classic as Casablanca. In the novels of Paul Bowles or diaries of Joe Orton and Cecil Beaton, it is clear that decorating tips were not the primary draw for single, white males to North Africa. Since the Grand Tours of the 19th century, Moroccan antiques have appealed to the European's taste for all things exotic. But, like interior design's answer to Mata Hari, Le Style Maroc is a dangerous creature to trifle with.

The owner of Moroccan Bazaar, Mrs Bennani, has imported Moroccan furniture to London for 30 years, supplying shops such as Alternative East in Islington and Shop 758 in North Finchley. "Moroccan craftsmanship hasn't changed for centuries, so the style is beyond fashion," she says. "We did have a golden period in the Seventies, supplying Marrakesh love-beads and tapestry bags for the hippies. The Eighties were unkind to Moroccan interiors, but now demand is higher than ever."

The exorcism of clutter and fuss from modern interiors may have shown no sign of abating, but colour - particularly the dazzling Moroccan blue, dusky pink and golden yellow - led the way towards more adventurous rooms. The white cube environment is not suited to the grey/blue light of England. Its severity is also out of step with English eccentric taste. An interior can, and should, be minimal and colourful.

Deputy editor of House & Garden, Liz Elliot, believes, "We may be still paring down interiors, but Moroccan elements in your interior are so beautiful, they are beyond fashion. However, less is still definitely more when considering such an extravagant decorative tradition." Tangier's most famous resident, American heiress Barbara Hutton, is a prime example of too much money and too little discernment. International broker of taste Cecil Beaton commented tartly in his 1961 diary, "Barbara's house [in Tangier] is almost too oriental in its excess of lattice work tiles, painted and carved woods and divans piled with velvet cushions."

Interiors guru, Nicholas Haslam, who many believe to be the spiritual successor of Beaton, advises exercise of restraint to the Nineties Moroccan followers. He is currently working on a restaurant interior in London's West End in Le Style Maroc. "I aspire to Moorish elegance rather than dusty old tat from the kasbah. I can't bear those dreadful lanterns and hookah pipes people seem to identify with Morocco. The spirit of Morocco is in its colour - not in piles of old carpets from Fez and wicker baskets." Momo, the Moroccan restaurant favoured by Madonna and the staff of nearby Conde Nast, has reintroduced London to the interiors and the exotica of Moroccan food. It is not, however, the place to look for interior inspiration. A restaurant is like a movie set, seductively designed to entice you for a couple of hours. Mezzo may be an experience, but you wouldn't want to curl-up and watch ER there on a Wednesday night.

The mistake many people make is to take the safe option and buy armfuls of kasbah nick-nacks from Camden market, or meander down Sloane Street picking up overpriced antiques of dubious origin. Unless you go to a genuine Moroccan importer, like wholesalers Z'Bari Interiors, Moroccan Bazaar or Marabout, then shopping in London for Moroccan pieces is like buying fish and chips on the Costa del Sol.

Journalist Alison Macdonald first visited Morocco two years ago. She stayed in Essaouira, home to The Villa Maroc Hotel, inspiration for Jimmy Hendrix and venue for the first Gnaouwa (chanting) Moroccan Music Festival in October 1997. Encouraged by Jane Loveless, organiser of the music festival, Macdonald bought a four-floor riad (house built around a courtyard) in the walled town. This year she has visited Essaouira six times to shop for interiors. "Morocco is the best and most pleasurable place in the world to shop," she says. "You can travel out on British Airways or Royal Air Maroc for about pounds 220 and stay in an excellent hotel for about pounds 20 a night. You would spend that on a Sloane Street trinket without even getting airborne."

Macdonald discovered Le Touareg, an antiques shop specialising in colonial pottery, in Essaouira. "The pottery is extremely cheap - from pounds 20 - and rare. But Le Touareg also offers a personal shopping service better than Harvey Nichols." For a small fee, Le Touareg (a southern Moroccan tribe) will source anything from ornately carved wooden doors to Victorian baths, Touareg carpets and ancient metal candle holders from all over Morocco. "The owner accompanied me on a tour of Morocco sourcing furniture for my home," says Macdonald. "I never once felt threatened, ripped off or unsafe. If a market trader sees you buying a wooden carved picture frame, he may beckon you into his shop and show you the matching antique mirror. Everyone offers you mint tea; much more civilised than Harrods. We don't have the same tradition of bargaining, so Le Touareg was an essential guide." The personal shopping feel extends to street traders mixing vibrant vegetable and mineral dyes with quicklime to create tadlacht, a primitive type of plaster with a finish that gives a colour-wash effect.

Morocco is not prohibitively expensive for most of us. Macdonald shopped in Marrakesh, Fez, Essaouira, Rabat and the southern towns of Rissani and Erfoud. "The south is exciting because you escape the tourist trail," she says. "Most of the traders, even in the flea markets, kasbahs and souks, speak French. For the Moroccans, trading is an art form they have perfected over thousands of years. I would advise a visit to Le Touareg if you are contemplating a shopping spree in Morocco. They also organise shipping purchases over to England efficiently."

The key pieces to look for, whether in Morocco or at a Moroccan importer are the delicate, ornate pottery; the authentic colour pigments that can be mixed with emulsion or gloss; the brighter, jewel- coloured, Touareg carpets from southern Morocco (from pounds 200); and enamel- studded jewel caskets. For lighting detail, henna pattern on parchment or leather shades and metal candle holders are infinitely better than the metal kasbah lamps. For the famous Moroccan floor tiles, Terra Firma in NW1 has a good selection of decorative tiles. These can be used on table tops, floors and wall detail. Forget "all together or not at all". The secret with Moroccan interiors, according to Haslam, is little and often.

Steve Lee, international business manager for the Warehouse fashion chain, is a seasoned traveller whose colour sense was honed by Le Style Maroc. For his newly decorated Manor House apartment, which he shares with fashion student flatmate Anthony Keegan (pictured above), he used deep Moroccan blood red, burnished yellow and tangerine orange. "I didn't want a sitting room reminiscent of the souk. So I suggested Morocco with the clashing colour scheme and placed simple pieces like the occasional chair and the Moroccan porcelain. Nothing too obvious or themed for me." The Seventies affair with Morocco was a head-over-heels obsession. The Nineties version is more discreet, but no less affectionate.

For a taste of Moroccan cuisine, see the Sunday Review, page 50.