Thursday, 31 January 2013

The zellij of Morocco

Zellij is the name for a certain type of traditional moroccan tiles. They are made of enamelled terracotta in subtle or bright colours. They can be worked to make a geometric motif or left plain with irregular colouring and surfaces. It is this hand-made irregular look that gives Moroccan tiles their originality and beauty. 
When came the time to choose tiles for the kitchen and bathrooms, we went to a small hole-in-the-wall type store and were shown all the styles to chose from. 
The tile makers chisel out some of the enamel to form a pattern. You choose the basic colour and the pattern and once you have made up your mind, they send the rough tiles along with the carvers right to your house: the definition of bespoke!
The tile maker on the floor of the living room, chipping away at a tile to make the borders for the bathrooms (finished brown tiles and natural tiles at lower left of photo)

We first tried to determine what we liked. Not so easy when every style is exquisite. 
Here, my sister's reflection in the mirror photographing the bathroom tiles of the Tangerina Hotel, our home away from home while the house was being renovated. We stayed at the Tangerina so often that, for a while after we moved into the house, we felt as if we had moved away from home.
We also took photos of the tables on the terrace at the first B&B I ever stayed at, Dar Sultan, a charming, colourful place very near the house.
We admired the bathrooms at El Minzah hotel, a beautiful hotel in the heart of the city. A soothing floor to ceiling, wall to wall affair with delicately hand painted mirror.
Lovely tile work in the fountain at the Minzah.
 We were inspired by a door surround in Asilah, a beautiful seaside town an hour away... a mix of antique wall tiles at a palace/museum in town...
...and the side of the minaret next to the madrassa, the religious school
...or a fish/flower motif on a table in Fes, the capital of zellij making
 ...and even worn cement floor and wall tiles cum babouches in a Marakech courtyard. Years of shuffling of babouches and brushing with "black soap" have given it that special patina.
Moroccan black soap is made with a black olive pulp/olive oil mixture that is "marinated" in salt and potassium brine, then boiled resulting in a thick greasy mixture. It is used as an exfoliant in the hammam and for cleaning.
I am sure the owner of the slippers did not think she was creating an artistic tableau when she placed them there to dry.
In the end, we opted for subdued colours and intricate patterns in the carving and the layout of the tiles and chose a different pattern for the floors. We chose natural (actually greyish blue) small square tiles and just added a line of carved tiles in a different colour and motif for each bathroom. Here natural...
...another mustard yellow and the third one dark brown. Each natural tile is a slightly different tone of grey, some bluish and others a beige tone, which gives another interesting pattern to the walls and floor.

Photographs: Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, Joelle Desparmet


  1. Jo, this post is just wonderful! I am do excited about your journey and am glad you are blogging about it. This is the reason I blog, to read stories like yours. Thanks so much for stopping by...I look forward to following. :)

    Jeanne xx

  2. PS..when you add a 'subscribe by email' link, can you let me know?

    1. Jeanne,
      I am not sure how to do that. I'm rather new at this!

  3. My heart is going pitter patter! I love the bespoke nature of these. I am seriously in love with the first photo...the designs, the slight variation in size and color. Thank you for showing the process of installing . I will be on a mission to find some!

  4. Theresa, I am glad you liked this post. I know these tiles are available in the NY area as one of my sister's clients used the natural ones for the backsplash in her kitchen. No motif, no other colour: stunning. You are right, it is the fact that each tile is different in shape and tone that makes them so special.

  5. Hi Joelle, these are beautiful pictures of zelleige tiles, I will be travelling to Tangier in the next few weeks, would be grateful if you could let me know where they sell them.
    Thanks so much.


    1. I would love to tell you but really don't know. The man who did my renovations took me somewhere in town. My suggestion would be to ask someone in the medina. Go to the Merinides store (ask anyone in the medina for Hassan's store) if he knows. He knows everything and is a dear friend. Hope you are able to find a zellij store