Moroccan housing gems

Fashion designer Liza Bruce and her husband, artist Nicholas Alvis Vega, lead the life of high-style nomads. The jet-setting couple have amassed a global collection of homes—from a flat in London’s Notting Hill, to a palazzo apartment in Jaipur, to a group of beach bungalows in Puglia, Italy—that they have furnished with a worldly sensibility and a near-cinematic eye for design. “We refer to our houses as film sets without the film,” Bruce says. “We’re driven to create the perfect hideaway.”

The jewel in their crown—the home that Vega calls their “pleasure palace”—is a three-story house in Morocco complete with gardens, terraces, a swimming pool, and a hammam steam bath. Bruce, who made her name in the 1980s with an innovative line of Lycra swimwear, now sells her fashions in her London boutique. In 2003, she began traveling to Marrakech to create a collection of embroidered caftans. After several trips, she and her husband—an inseparable pair who met as teenagers in 1968— decided to establish a permanent base in Morocco.

The couple’s driver introduced them to the Ourika Valley, a lush riverside region nearly 20 miles south of Marrakech in the foothills of the snow-peaked Atlas Mountains. There, in a Berber market village, they discovered the shell of a half-built riad, a traditional Moroccan home constructed around an interior garden. The house had been abandoned in the 1970s. “It was hideous and ill-proportioned,” Bruce admits. “But the bones of the building were good, there was birdsong in the courtyard, and the price was too tempting to resist.”

The son of an architect, Vega relished the chance to rebuild the space into a handcrafted home of his design. Morocco, with its culture of skilled artisans, offered every resource he needed to bring his ideas to life. His crew included woodworkers, stained-glass artists, tile artisans, and plasterers. “Nothing was impossible,” Vega says. “They replicated the arches I drew to perfection. Together we found solutions to all the difficulties the building presented.”

The makeover was inspired by the elegant geometry of Islamic patterns and Swahili design, which Vega first saw growing up in his native Kenya. He raised the riad’s arches and, at Bruce’s suggestion, added a pair of white domes to the roofline and a graceful colonnade to the courtyard perimeter. Meanwhile, the eight-pointed star, a Moroccan motif consisting of two overlapping squares, inspired elements throughout the house, from the mosaic at the bottom of the swimming pool to the shape of the dozens of mirrors lining the entry hall.

From the moment they first saw it, Bruce and Vega knew the house had to be white—an unusual choice in Morocco, where exterior walls are famously rose pink. “We wanted the white domes to echo the nearby Atlas Mountains,” Bruce says, “and white floors and walls to fill the house with light and a sense of calm.” Still, the designer, known for her high-wattage palette, couldn’t resist adding serious color to her home. She found the right hues in the djellaba robes worn by local villagers: magenta and a dark eau de nil green. These appear throughout the riad in the form of textiles, painted furniture, and color-drenched walls. “I’ve always loved color but I’m very careful in how I use it because it can be lethal in the wrong hands,” she says. “The essence of Islamic architecture is that it is spare and refined.”

The decor is just as carefully curated. They jettisoned the idea of using Western-style furniture, which they think looks wrong in traditional Moroccan interiors. Instead, they drew upon their collection of African and Asian furnishings and artifacts. In the sitting room, a soaring space where the ceiling and walls have been bathed in hot-pink lime plaster, the furnishings include a red Musharabi armoire designed by Vega and an Afghan warlord’s bed. The seating area next to the pool features hardwood Ethiopian benches and a gallery-like display of African beaded aprons and Yoruba crowns on metal stands.

This is not a conventional home by Western standards. The kitchen, a new addition, has Berber mud walls and was built around a tree that now grows through its roof. Rather than sit on sofas, Bruce and Vega recline on piles of pillows or shaggy Berber rugs. There is no dining room. When they have guests, Bruce says, “we bring out all the big brass trays we have and sprawl on cushions.”

The house, a three-hour flight from London, serves as their design “laboratory,” a place where they spend about four months of the year creating fabrics for their clothing and home textiles collections. At the end of the day they retire to their serene bedroom, which overlooks the courtyard and is furnished with an antique Moroccan Tuareg bed they discovered in a nearby souk. The bed was devised to be disassembled and tied to the sides of a camel for transport during migrations—just the thing for a globe-trotting couple who never know when and where they might next be pitching their tent.

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