Marrakech Style

Two Expats Uncover The City’s Designer Details
Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes, Founders Of Popham Design. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Matheus.
Caitlin & Samuel Dowe-Sandes, Founders Of Popham Design

American expats Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes only intended to live in Marrakech for one year—and that was 13 years ago. Raised on the east coast (she is from Maine, Samuel was raised in Vermont), the couple lived in New York City before moving to Los Angeles, where Samuel worked in the film industry. By the mid-2000’s, however, they needed to shake things up. "We came to Morocco to change our lives, and we did," says Samuel.

"I think it was important that we came wanting a shock and a change, which probably made us more receptive to the opportunities here," he adds. The biggest "opportunity" turned out to be the couple’s founding of Popham Design, a studio that crafts vibrant, design-forward tiles that marry Moroccan traditions with modern style.

Popham Design combines 150-year-old tile making techniques with contemporary design and colors. Photo courtesy of Popham Design.
Keeping Tradition Alive

"We fell in love with the concrete tiles while renovating our 250-year-old house in the medina," explains Caitlin. "Once we learned how they were made, we immediately started playing with our own designs. Our idea was to combine a 150-year-old technique with contemporary designs and colors. And I think that is the future for so many handicrafts, "she adds. "To remain viable, you need to be relevant to today’s tastes." When Popham Design started, it was just one of two companies producing contemporary tile designs in concrete; today, a number of companies have followed, inspired by Popham’s global success.

A tile maker at Popham Design.
Falling In Love With The Pink City

“When we moved from New York to Los Angeles, I remember saying to Samuel, ‘Let’s never become jaded about palm trees,’” remembers Caitlin. “When we moved to Marrakech, I never wanted to become jaded about the foreignness—the medieval medina, the crazy mopeds and brazen goats, the camels on the street corners, the cats in the supermarket. I love that Marrakech remains surprising,” she says. “It took us a while to settle into the rhythm of the city, but now we’d be hard pressed to leave.” Another perk, she adds, is how much there is to enjoy in the country itself. “There are mountains, forests, arid plains, a long coastline, and lush agricultural zones, all within Morocco.”

Making Artisanal Magic

“Our tiles are inspired by Moroccan architecture, textiles, and patterns in general, but not just that—it’s also the light here, and the topography,” says Caitlin. “Plus, our team is Moroccan, and their know-how continues to be the backbone of the company.” As Samuel notes, working with local artisans can present some challenges, mainly due to “cultural differences—some obvious, other less so.” Ultimately, though, the process can be very rewarding. “There are some absolutely wonderful artisans here who can pull ideas out of us, and realize them before our eyes. They can take our crude sketches and anticipate future problems and find solutions in advance,” he says, “When this happens, it is magic.”

Local Recommendations

Explore Marrakech with Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes

"Marrakech is guaranteed to provide a sensory feast and, for so many travelers, a shock from their normal daily routine," says Caitlin. Samuel agrees, noting that visitors should also "recognize and enjoy the public-private split. The bustle can be overwhelming, but the moment you step off the street away from the din, the tranquility is there waiting." Here are some of the couple’s favorite spots to soak up the magic of Marrakech.

Bab El Khemis Flea Market

“This is not for everyone—it’s not the glamorous Marché Paul Bert in Paris,” says Samuel about the Bab El Khemis flea market (Gate Bab El Khemis, in the northwestern medina; +212-6 6214-2420) in the old town. “But in a world where so much is disposable, the market is an acknowledgement that everything can be reused.” Among the emerald green toilets from the 1970’s, piles of copper parts from the 1930’s, recycled rebar, ornamental wooden doors from medina riads, and cell phone parts from the 1990’s “there are some real treasures to be found,” Samuel notes. “Our first house in Marrakech was decorated almost entirely from our finds here.” Part of the thrill is, of course, the hunt—and the anticipation of what might lie at the bottom of the next pile. “There is a bustling feeling of commerce here, in which you ask yourself, ‘Is it junk or is it chic?’,” says Samuel. “And where a new chapter is always possible.”

Medina doors ready to be restored to their original splendor at Bab El Khemis flea market.

LRNC Studio Interior Design & Accessories

Founded in 2013 by Belgian designer (and self-professed “sun chaser”) Laurence Leenaert, LRNCE Studio (59 Sidi Ghanem; +212-5-2420-0108) is a décor and accessories brand celebrating North African craftmanship and materials. It’s a philosophy that resonates with the Popham founders. “There’s a bit of Matisse, a bit of Picasso in Laurence’s simple but evocative designs,” says Caitlin, noting the quirky, cubist-modernist influences in the hand-painted pottery and embroidered rugs and textiles. “She does artisanal work the way it should be done: she celebrates the handmade by making the hand of the maker present in each piece.” Many of the materials used are upcycled or used in new ways, adding to the novelty and originality of the pieces. Among the leather sandals with mismatched bands, the painted bowls with a hint of a face peeking out from below, and a chenille yarn woven “dinner blanket” emblazoned with a still life tableau, Caitlin cites an “insouciant pouf with a woman’s figure outlined in Majorelle blue” as her favorite.

LRNCE Studio, a décor and accessories brand celebrating North African craftmanship and materials. Photo by Laurence Leenaert for LRNCE Studio.

Maison ARTC

For another example of the creative spirit thriving in modern-day Marrakech, head to Maison ARTC (Mohamed El Bequal, 96 Residence Kelly, Gueliz; +212-52-438-1427), the boutique of Artsi Ifrach, one of the most prominent fashion designers working in town today. “His unique collections are ethereal and grand, mixing vintage and traditional African fabrics with unexpected materials,” marvels Caitlin. Located in the French colonial-era Gueliz neighborhood, and open by appointment only, the showroom is lined with the couturier’s vibrant, one-of-a-kind creations, as well as a hand-picked selection of accessories and quirky objects. Revel in the mix of patterns and textures, then try on a multicolored flared coat or a dramatic flowing gown—even if they aren’t what you’d typically wear back home. “These are imaginative runway pieces for the daring,” notes Caitlin.

Inside Maison ARTC, Artsi Ifrach's boutique in Gueliz.

Plus 61 Restaurant

Opened by Australian expat friends of the Popham couple, Plus 61 restaurant (96 Rue Mohammed el Beqal, Gueliz; +212-5-2420-7020) in the “new town” neighborhood of Gueliz is “airy and light, and unlike anything else in Marrakech,” says Caitlin. “And after endless tagines, the fresh, globally-inspired cuisine is welcome.” Though a sense of place is still everywhere: the modern, streamlined space is outfitted with furniture, ceramics, and décor handmade by Moroccan artisans, and the ingredients are sourced in Marrakech and the surrounding region, mainly from bioorganic farms. Chef Andrew Cibej celebrates the simplicity of Australian cuisine by letting the ingredients speak for themselves in dishes influenced by the flavors of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and South Asian cooking. And all the bread, yogurt, cheese, and pasta is made in-house daily, as well. The menu changes seasonally, but examples might include beef dumplings, homemade ricotta with red peppers, and roast sirloin sandwiches with eggplant relish. Caitlin also advises not to miss the “amazing cocktails, which are named for Australian beaches, like the Bronte Blush and the Tamatini.” “This restaurant should definitely be on every visitor’s list. It’s already on the locals’ list of favorite spots,” she says.

On the table at Plus 61. Photo courtesy of Gaelle Le Boulicaut.

Yves Saint Lauren Museum

At the iconic Jardin Majorelle—one of the most popular tourist attractions in Marrakech—visitors are invited to wander through the lush gardens and fountain-adorned nooks on the grounds of the home of designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé. For those who want to delve deeper into the life and work of the famed designer, though, there’s the nearby Yves Saint Laurent Museum (Rue Yves St Laurent; +212-5-2429-8686), opened in 2017. “The museum is small, but every inch of it is considered,” says Caitlin. “And it’s worth a visit as much for the gorgeous Studio KO architecture as for the collections.” The first dedicated fashion museum in Africa, the structure greets visitors with a brick façade inspired by lace patterns, followed by a sleek white interior that takes cues from YSL couture linings. Facilities include a research library, archives, auditorium, bookstore, café, and spaces for permanent and temporary exhibitions. “The black hall of YSL creations is particularly breathtaking,” notes Caitlin. “Each time we visit, my daughter and I like to select the one piece we would love to go home with. My favorite is a Braque-inspired ensemble that resembles a bird.”

Impeccably dressed mannequins display Yves Saint Laurent's iconic designs at the designer's namesake museum. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Matheus.