THE JEWEL BOX
THE BULGARI FAMILY’S HOLIDAY RETREAT IN MARRAKECH IS AN ENCHANTING FUSION OF ISLAMIC AND SPANISH STYLE
The Bulgari family’s holiday retreat in Marrakech fuses Islamic and Spanish style
Although it gives the impression of being ages old, 10 years ago, the Marrakech riad you see on these pages was little more than a vacant plot of land.
That is, until the plot was bought by Paolo Bulgari, chairman of Italian luxury brand Bvlgari, and his Madrid-born wife Maite, a screenwriter and TV producer. The couple used to come to the city for holidays with their daughters Carlotta and Marina, escaping their busy jobs in Rome by exploring the design workshops in the medina. Their visits inspired them to create a remarkable family retreat on their rocky piece of land: one that would combine the best of Morocco’s craft traditions with modern European style.
Once the lengthy process of building the riad was complete, the Bulgaris faced the challenge of decorating the interior. A trip to Seville, with its wealth of Moorish architecture, convinced Maite that a designer from her homeland would be able to capture the unique mix of styles she wanted for the house. She discovered the work of Madrid-based decorator Pablo Paniagua online.
“I was looking for someone young and open minded who could learn about this different culture with me,” she remembers. “We wanted the house to be ‘made from Morocco’. After 20 minutes chatting on Skype, I realised Pablo was exactly who I wanted.” Paniagua was born in Malaga, Andalusia, a region that’s at the heart of Spain’s Islamic tradition. He quickly understood what the Bulgaris were trying to achieve. “It was vital to the family that the house had real Moroccan soul, not a fake atmosphere,” he says.
Almost everything at Riad Habiba – which sits within the historic medina, surrounded by craft ateliers – is either antique or made bespoke by Moroccan and Spanish artisans. Paniagua’s choices were shaped not only by local skills in textiles, rugs and metalwork, but by Spain’s most important Islamic buildings, which date back to the 15th century. With his architect brother Gustavo (a specialist in restoration, who worked on the house’s ornate wall finishes and ceilings), he visited the Alhambra in Granada and the royal city of Medina Azahara in Cordoba. “Our job was not to copy spaces from the past, but to understand how they were made, so that we could reinterpret them in a contemporary way,” he says.
The brothers also studied French Orientalist artworks, mining them for ideas on how to arrange rooms and furniture. “They were an inspiration in terms of showing how rugs were used, the different ways of hanging lamps, and people’s understanding of light and privacy,” says Paniagua. This accounts not only for the house’s painterly quality, but also its juxtaposition of open and intimate spaces. There are several living areas, three separate dining rooms for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a series of occasional chambers, all connecting with outdoor terraces. “We wanted to create a sense of mystery,” Paniagua explains. “Everything feels as if it has been here since long ago.”
To complement the bespoke and antique furniture, precious finishes play a crucial role. On the walls, this means polished tadelakt plaster, tiles and velvet panelling, while the extraordinary coffered ceilings reflect Morocco’s rich tradition of such designs. Out of respect for Islamic culture, there are no figurative representations; only Berber-inspired patterns were used for embellishment. “To these, we added areas of solid colour to impart a sense of motion and rhythm,” says Paniagua. “The inspiration for the palette was the medina, with its workshops and carpet warehouses full of olive greens, saffron yellows, silvers and aubergines. Bvlgari’s jewellery designs also influenced us, but we tried not to use non-traditional colours.”
What can’t be conveyed by these images is the riad’s striking appeal to the senses. “The rooms are surrounded by courtyards, and everywhere there is the sound of birdsong, water trickling in the fountains and the call to prayer coming from the mosques,” Paniagua enthuses. The gardens are planted with traditional Moroccan plants, such as orange and almond trees, and flowers are cut daily to perfume the interior. Even the house itself exudes a scent, from the Spanish cedarwood used to clad the ceilings.
In many ways, being here still feels like travelling back in time. The electric lighting is hardly ever used, and instead, rooms are illuminated by candlelight. It seems appropriate for such a romantic place. “This is where we come to relax,” says Maite. “Whenever I’m not here, I’m always thinking about the next chance to come back.” Pablopaniagua.es