Travel: Moroccan Tile & Architecture
Here is the first in a series of travel blogs that I’ll be sharing about interior design integrated into my globetrotting adventures. Back in September 2014 I visited Morocco and learned about the country’s architecture and intricate tiling. I’ve shared with you a few of my travel pictures to bring you inspiration for new design influences into your own tiling design or home remodel.
Above is the Ben Yousseff Madrasa, an Islamic college in Marrakech, Morocco where decorative tile is found everywhere in both public to private spaces to help keep gathering areas cool in a hot climate, as well as communicating religious and cultural ideas.
Located in Northern Africa, Morocco is bordered by the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans with architecture that reflects its diverse geography and a long history of settlement and military encroachment. Rule by the Berbers from 110 CE gave the country its cultural heritage of constructing buildings from earth or mud brick called pisé, a word from the French, who occupied Morocco as recently as 1912.
It was the French who, seeing unorganized real estate growth from early 1900s, mandated Moroccan architectural standards in the early 20th century requiring buildings not be higher than four stories, have flat roofs, and that 20% of the space must be gardens or courtyards. These building regulations have maintained the country’s preexisting architectural features and balanced the rapid urbanization, while beautifying contemporary construction.
Classic Moroccan interiors contain common elements such as intricate woodwork that is left untreated and unpainted; metalwork of copper, bronze, iron and brass used for door and window frames, door knobs, studs and room partitions; plaster used for sculpting, called “gabs” or “jybs” made from gypsum quarried nearby; and painted and glazed ceramics. The process of tiling, arranging and cutting them requires great expertise. Several of these classic interior elements are featured above in the Ben Yousseff Madrasa photos.
The colorful style of enamel-covered terra cotta tile that originated in northern Africa and migrated to Spain in the 8th century is called “Zellige”, a design solution that arose from the need of Islamic artists to create spatial decorations that avoided depictions of living things, consistent with religious teachings. Today Moroccan or Moorish tile is used to accent and decorate in Western design, where it brings romance and adds visual interest to monotone interiors.
Zellige-making is considered an art form, passed down from generation to generation by maâlems (master craftsmen). Training starts in childhood to develop exceptional skills. Small shapes are cut according to a precise radius gauge and painted. (This is where those high school geometry classes become useful!)
The enameled pieces are assembled in a geometric structure face-down to form a completed single mosaic with a completely even surface, so the pattern is not revealed until after the zellige dries. If the tiling is done on an uneven surface such as a curved wall, a mold is made first and then the tiles laid and cured, and only later installed onsite. The process has not changed for a millennium, though the first stages of conception and design now allow for new technologies to create the patterns.
Arches are another important element in Moorish architecture. Arches vary in shape from pointed, multi-foil, to horseshoe, which is also aptly named the Moorish arch by Westerners. Used frequently, arches appear in almost every aspect of Moroccan housing, whether it’s doors, entrances, windows or niches. The horseshoe arch was originally designed as a superstitious and symbolic emblem to provide protection and bring good fortune into the home.
A fountain or water feature is a conspicuous feature in every house, often made of marble or cement. It’s located in the heart of the courtyard, living room or guest room. Before the conversion to Islam under Berber rule, water was already an important part of Moroccan culture; however, Islam made water even more important functionally because of ritual ablution before prayer.
The herringbone tiling pattern pictured above is one more familiar to Westerners, though not as intricate as the geometric zellige. I love the variation of color!
Colors have different meanings in Moroccan culture. Yellow stands for wealth, the sun, and gold. White means purity, beauty, and femininity. Blue represents the sky, heaven, and water, and green also relates to heaven, because it is halfway between reddish hell, and blue heaven.
Now that you’ve been inspired by the beauty, history and charm of Moroccan tiling, if you’d like to explore using these ideas in your own little palace, get in touch!
Kimball Starr Interior Design is a boutique SF interior design firm providing design solutions for home renovations and remodels of SF Bay Area homes.