Header Ads

Breaking News

A Vibrant Celebration of Moroccan Design

As a few faint rain drops began to fall in the courtyard of Riad Mena, a seven-room guesthouse in the Marrakesh medina, the hotelier Philomena Schurer Merckoll looked skyward, assessing the likelihood of a downpour. This was in February, when a seasonal shower was the biggest threat to a social gathering, and at risk beneath the citrus trees were white linen sofas and red silk-embroidered floor cushions, laid out for cocktail hour before a dinner in honor of Marrakesh’s design talent. But with artworks arriving and her guests expected, she shrugged at the massing clouds, determined the evening should go on. The furniture was taken inside and then reassembled an hour later once the shower had passed. Looking back now, from a radically altered world of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, guests fondly recall the evening as one of the last when they were able to mingle freely with friends old and new. “It’s wonderful to remember that dinner now,” said Schurer Merckoll late last month. “It feels so special because it gives me hope for more positive times to come.”

Schurer Merckoll, 36, was raised in London by German-Norwegian parents and later lived in Paris, Berlin, New York and Mexico. She first traveled to Marrakesh with her mother in 2005 to visit a family friend, and bought Riad Mena, a two-story Arabo-Andalusian home built in the early 19th-century for a family of courtiers, on the same trip. She spent the next seven years painstakingly renovating the property with the Franco-Swiss interior designer Romain Michel-Ménière before opening it as a hotel in 2014. Initially, she had plans for a maximalist Moroccan scheme, but after finding a 1980s-era glass-and-steel Paolo Piva table in the nearby souk early on in the project, she chose a starker midcentury-modern aesthetic instead. As a result, the airy whitewashed rooms, which have glossy tadelakt (polished plaster) floors, are filled with Italian and Scandinavian vintage furniture offset by local textiles including kilim-covered poufs and cushions made from handiras (Moroccan wedding blankets).

In the hour before dinner, as she waited for the rain to pass in a salon off the courtyard, Schurer Merckoll focused her attention on hanging a textile-and-paint canvas by the Marrakesh-based Belgian artist and designer Laurence Leenaert. “Art is well celebrated in Marrakesh,” said Schurer Merckoll, who has long supported local artists through the riad, and more recently through its newly opened store, the Pink Door. “But I’ve always been surprised more attention isn’t paid to the city’s craft and design heritage, because I know so many designers who come here to be inspired. I wanted to provide a platform for that.” That platform is Design Marrakech, an event Schurer Merckoll conceived of and launched this year — and which she was celebrating with the night’s dinner. The showcase will run alongside the contemporary African art fair 1-54 each February and will give up-and-coming designers the opportunity to exhibit their work across Mena’s three ground-floor salons.

In addition to Leenaert, this year’s participants included the French artist and designer Louis Barthélemy, who creates erotic takes on khayamiya, Egyptian appliqué textiles traditionally used to decorate tents at weddings, celebrations and funerals. As Schurer Merckoll helped him hang one of his pieces, “Temple du Nu” (2020), which depicts a fantastical scene of naked cabaret performers pole dancing on palm trees, the chef Carlo Simons stopped by to check on timings for the modern Moroccan meal he would serve later. Trained at the Michelin-starred restaurant Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, he is making waves in Marrakesh with his newly opened restaurant, Dar Simons. The evening’s starter of sea bass on a bed of local loubia beans topped with a salad of micro greens including spinach, coriander, parsley and chives further demonstrated his knack for pairing simple, popular ingredients with high-concept cooking techniques.

“I really want to showcase these young, talented people who are doing something completely fresh,” said Schurer Merckoll of the night’s dinner. If there was a common thread between her 16 guests — a mix of local artists and designers, including Leenaert, Barthélemy and Michel-Ménière, as well as visitors in town for the art fair — it was perhaps their appreciation of traditional crafts and their belief in the importance of keeping them alive. “I enjoy the energy that comes from putting artistic personalities together,” Schurer Merckoll continued. “That’s how I like to connect with places, and if I can shine a light on designers producing interesting work, that’s even better.” Supporting these independent makers and the artisans they work with now, as they struggle with the economic impact of the pandemic, only feels more important, she added recently. Here, she shares her tips for throwing a similarly vibrant dinner party when it’s safe to gather once more.

“It may look as if my method of hosting is haphazard,” said Schurer Merckoll with a smile, as she simultaneously comforted her crying 4-year-old daughter, Theodora, FaceTimed with her friend Giulio Michelucci, the head of design at the British home wares brand Summerill & Bishop, who had designed the table setting on a prior trip to Marrakesh, and also investigated a crisis with the oven. “But, at some point, you just need to let go and allow the evening to happen.” When three of Barthélemy’s handmade walnut benches arrived from his nearby studio to complete his display, Theo forgot her tears and instead offered strong opinions on their arrangement, to her mother’s amusement. “Of course, you always want to make things special for your guests,” said Schurer Merckoll, “but creating a happy and fun energy is far more important. I always aim to have things about 95 percent right. True perfection, if you somehow manage to attain it, can be quite terrifying.”

“Sometimes it just takes moving furniture around to change the dynamic and make things feel more festive,” advised Schurer Merckoll. “I like to transpose the living room outside so we can enjoy drinks in the garden. And inside-outside living is part of the riad experience.” As guests milled around beneath giant banana-plant leaves and relaxed on the low white sofas, the Marrakesh-based designer and D.J. Amine Bendriouich, dressed in a yellow-and-red tartan skirt, a blue silk jacket and a leopard-print hat, swapped notes with Barthélemy on up-and-coming African bands. He had curated a playlist for dinner, but for now, two musicians, seated in a bhou (a recessed seating alcove), played the lilting oud and sang Moroccan poems, while high above the breeze made the fronds of the palm tree chafe, releasing a sound that evoked distant waves.

“I prefer to think that we are throwing a dinner party,” said Schurer Merckoll of her assembled guests. “I’m not a great cook, but I love entertaining, so I’ve been collaborating on dinners with friends since I was 16.” As watermelon martinis and beetroot, raspberry and nonalcoholic-beer cocktails made the rounds in the courtyard, Jay Jopling, the founder of London’s White Cube gallery, and his fiancée, Hikari Yokoyama, a board member for the nonprofit Women for Women, arrived. (Women for Women recently launched the Hope Beyond the Headlines project, a platform to highlight women’s stories during the pandemic.) Not far behind them were the contemporary Egyptian art specialist Mai Eldib of Sotheby’s London and Yodit Eklund, the founder of the Senegalese surf-wear brand Bantu Wax. Michel-Ménière, meanwhile, was in the dining room admiring the tablescape, designed by Michellucci using objects and textiles he sourced from Marrakesh’s souks, including a saffron-yellow block-printed cloth, woven rattan place mats and a series of iridescent green candelabra from Tamegroute, a small village in the Draa Valley, just southeast of the city. In between them, the local florist Yassab had placed traditional Moroccan green-tinted Beldi tea glasses filled with old gold dried chrysanthemums, pampas grass, pepper and eucalyptus leaves. When Schurer Merckoll finally corralled the chattering group into the dining room, which overlooks the lit-up pool in a second courtyard paved with hand-painted concrete tiles, she raised a glass to the endless creativity that Marrakesh inspires and everyone who had contributed to the evening’s undeniably magical atmosphere. “I think it’s just more fun to share things,” she concluded.

The classical architecture of the riad and its naturally styled garden of native plants, citrus trees and aromatic herbs eschews fussy decorative details. So only a large vase of sculptural strelitzia sat on a 1960s Italian Formica-and-glass coffee table in the makeshift courtyard lounge, the blossoms’ sharp orange, fanlike petals contrasting with the evergreen foliage. The cocktails, too, were simple, mixed with fresh fruit juices. “At Mena, we like to keep it seasonal: watermelon in summer, pomegranate and clementine in winter,” said Schurer Merckoll. Simons’s food had the same clean, distinct character. The duck main, in particular, was rigorously simple but intensely delicious: a slice of breast with a crisp skin rubbed with a lively mix of cumin, coriander and Sichuan pepper and accompanied by a single date filled with preserved lemon cream and a jus spiced with ginger, star anise and dried orange.

By the time dessert arrived — the season’s first strawberries dressed with raïb (a silky local yogurt flavored with orange blossom) and topped with a delicate violet sorbet — wax had melted down the knobbly candelabra, some of the pampas grass looked a little singed and Michel-Ménière was making people cry with laughter as he told a story about the riad’s renovation. Schurer Merckoll smiled and wrapped an arm around her partner, the Swedish musician Gustav Akerberg, the bassist for the cosmic country band Honey Harper. Though many of the guests had met for the first time that night, it felt like a gathering of entirely old friends. Schurer Merckoll played with one of the white linen napkins, trimmed with saffron silk and stitched with a pair of elegant letters. “I think it’s nice to add a thoughtful touch for each guest,” she said. “Instead of place cards, I had everyone’s initials sewn onto their napkin.” They were made by a women’s cooperative in the nearby village of Tameslouht and edged in tiny erz alghorza (counted thread) embroidery to match the block-printed tablecloth. “Afterward, I’ll send them to everyone with a thank-you note, and they’ll have a little memento of the meal. That is after I wash them, of course!”

Source link

No comments