Designing a Modern Moroccan Palace with El Fenn’s Willem Smit

Imagine watching the sun set over the Atlas Mountains from a 7000-square-foot rooftop terrace with a soothing cup of fresh mint tea in hand and a crystal-clear plunge pool at your feet. This calming oasis exists in the heart of Marrakech, just steps away from the bustling streets of the Medina and the famous Jemaa el-Fna square. It’s no surprise El Fenn has been one of Marrakech’s most esteemed boutique hotels and a favorite destination amongst celebrities for over a decade given its eccentric take on luxury. Experience the majestic El Fenn for yourself with Electrify Getaways on our trip to Morocco this May.



In 2002, Vanessa Branson and Howell James purchased the historic private home and with the help of local craftsman using traditional techniques, transformed the majestic riad into a six-bedroom hotel. 15 years later and 22 rooms and suites have been added, along with three swimming pools, a restaurant, bar, spa and library. Between the seven majestic riads lie enchanting courtyards filled with lush palms, marble fountains, Arabic lanterns and plunge pools accompanied with sleek day beds. While El Fenn is undoubtedly historic with its soaring ceilings and grand archways–and for having entertained notable figures such as Yves Saint Laurent and Winston Churchill–the property remains distinctly contemporary with the use of modern textures, bespoke furnishings and a carefully curated art collection.



El Fenn’s success can largely be attributed to its General Manager and Interior Designer, Willem Smit, who was brought on by Branson and James to spearhead a two-year refurbishment program that launched in 2012. Originally the managing director of a theater in Holland who “found himself obsessing over the interior as much as the production on stage”, Smit came upon the design opportunity of his dreams on a whim and moved from Europe to Marrakech in 2010 to join Branson and James. He has since become devoted to El Fenn, designing and maintaining the property as he would his own home. His passion for the hotel has not gone unnoticed as shortly after the renovation was complete, El Fenn won the prestigious Mr. & Mrs. Smith award for Best Dressed Hotel in 2014.



Smit’s dedication to the property is apparent from the moment you step into one of El Fenn’s individually-designed rooms; each space has been thoughtfully curated to evoke the feeling that you are a guest in a private home. Vibrantly colorful suites are adorned with rich Moroccan fabrics and antique, dark-wood doors, a traditional tadelakt bath with monsoon shower and hand-stitched floors. Some suites even feature 23-karat gold leafing and a free-standing, roll-top, silver bath.



While each room is uniquely styled, what remains consistent is Smit’s commitment to maintaining the hotel’s individuality. Literally translating to “house of art,” Riad El Fenn has seemingly become Smit’s masterpiece as he constantly looks for ways to improve the space. Whether it be remodelling a vintage piece from the local flea market or adding a new installation to the ever-changing art collection, curated by himself and Branson, Smit ensures that El Fenn remains an innovator at the forefront of Morocco’s hospitality industry.

We spoke with Smit to learn more about what prompted his move to Marrakesh, his design intentions with El Fenn, and his travel recommendations for Morocco.

How did you initially get involved with El Fenn?

I had a job in Holland that was very stressful and I quit to take sabbatical in Barcelona. One of my dear friends who was studying hotel management lived in London and was supposed to visit me in Barcelona. He rang me two or three days before he was supposed to come and said, “I’ve been invited to spend time in the countryside, instead of me going to Barcelona, why don’t you fly out to London?” So, we were spending the weekend in this country house and Vanessa and Howell [owners of El Fenn] were the initial owners. Howell was charming and showed me the website [for El Fenn]. By Sunday, he got me charmed and so I said, “Okay but let’s talk further, how are we going to do this?” He dead rang Vanessa and by Monday morning, I’m sitting at Vanessa’s kitchen table in London. She started talking about El Fenn very passionately and said, “You sort of need to experience it, you need to feel it. I’m flying to Marrakech this coming Friday, be my guest and come join us.” The next Friday I was on a plane to Marrakech and six weeks later, my stuff was packed in a container and I left. That was almost seven years ago.



Where did you source a lot of your interiors? Can you tell me more about the curation of the art within the property?

I’m very visual so it is almost like Christmas for me, like a Coca-Cola Christmas. There is a lot of colors, a lot of things happening, a lot of objects and books. For me to live in an environment like that is different because I find it to be stimulating. At the same time, guests are coming for that Moroccan atmosphere. For me, it is very important to create the feeling that you are staying in someone’s private home. Twenty percent of the furniture that is there was there when I came, I just restored them. I have three or four suppliers that deal with retro items. Before it goes into shop, they will send me a photo and I get the first option to buy. I have two guys I go to on a monthly basis, I buy and restore and then I keep the items in storage just outside of Marrakech. Every six weeks I go through the storage and say, “This should go here, that should go there.” We have great vintage pieces. You build a relationship with your suppliers. I also go to Europe. About 10 percent [of it] I buy in Europe and 90 percent I buy in Morocco. When I go through all the rooms, it is like walking through my own house. It becomes your baby–all the little objects and all the furniture.



Is it possible for guests to buy any of the pieces on the property?

No. There’s a lot of properties that do that these days but I feel I get way too attached. I think of an interior when you move into a place, I don’t believe in a concept. We all have our stories. I think there is a lot of love and attention that goes into all those details. Often the hotel or hospitality concept is done by an agency, it’s implemented and then there’s management. But for us, it all comes together. Vanessa and I are taking care of the art collection, this is like an extension of who we are. I think if you start selling, then no. Occasionally, I pull five, six or seven pieces that I bought. I will put them in the shop, put a price tag on and think, “Okay if it’s selling, then it’s selling and if it’s not, then I’m fine with it as well.” But I don’t want to put a price tag on a single piece in the hotel. People will walk up to me and ask if those lamps are for sale. No, that needs to be part of the whole ambience.



Morocco has boomed over the past few years with everyone travelling there. You’ve been in Marrakech for seven years now, how has it changed since you’ve been there?

First of all, Marrakech is a different story than the rest of Morocco. In Marrakech, the whole infrastructure has been cleaned and polished up, you can see that in the last six years. Call it progress but we have H&M, Zara, and McDonalds now. Shopping malls are a big thing. There was a beautiful food market, it was the most amazing place in Marrakech to go to, but they took it down to build a shopping mall. You see the whole Western influence coming.

In the medina, shops are opening up and they’re putting in big window displays. That’s changed enormously in the six years that I’ve been here. But at the same time, it still has the mysterious–that vibe that I imagine made Yves Saint Laurent come here in the 70s and buy a house. It is a very magical city. Then Morocco, in general, you drive 20 minutes outside Marrakech and feel that you have stepped back in time. Marrakech is a contrast within the country, it is enormous. We are living in a stressful society with all our mobile phones and all those impulses. I still feel Morocco is way more grounded and that people here are more in the here and now, which I very much enjoy.



In regards to the creative scene, has the country been supportive of emerging artists and designers given all the Western influence coming into Marrakech?

The thing is, yes, that’s all happened but it’s all very in early stages. There are some Moroccan artists that are getting international attention. The young generation is really being seen but it’s very much in early stages. In these six years, I’ve seen it growing, that artists are getting a lot of international recognition. It’s definitely there.

If you were to send someone to Morocco for the first time and they only had a couple weeks, what would be your recommendations to experience the country?

Morocco is such an enormous country. The obvious destination is Marrakech itself but I feel, as they say “New York is built on an energy well,” you get that same feeling with Marrakech. Marrakech is so not how Morocco is but I think Marrakech itself is very magical and there is the pragmatic; you know where can you go in a certain amount of time if you make Marrakech your base. But from what I’ve seen in Morocco, I think Essaouira is an amazing town, which is two and a half hours from Marrakech. It has a beautiful medina and all these hotels. It has that faded beauty, what you would expect from the south of France. I love Essaouira, they say it is the new Ibiza. It is very up and coming; a lot of people are talking about it. It has this nice vibe to it that is just being discovered. I can see that in ten years it will be way more polished, but now it’s got this nice rough edge. I love the people that live there and the people that are going there.



And, lastly, I have to ask, have you been to the Sahara?

Yes, and I think the Sahara is amazing but you need to go further into it. It takes you at least nine to eleven hours to get there. It’s a mission but as soon as you’re there, you hear the quietness; the nights are amazing. I’ve got too much energy, so two nights there and I’m done. It’s quite a journey but is so utterly beautiful.

If you travel Northern Morocco to Southern Morocco you see the changing landscapes. Northern Morocco is so green, you drive about three or four hours and you get to the red of Marrakech. Then you pass the Atlas Mountains which are amazing and you go up to the Sahara. The changing of the landscapes is phenomenal. Driving through Morocco, that’s one of the most amazing things that you could do.

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