Vern Yip: Travel can inspire your own home decor

November 9, 2011

Without fail, every time I get stopped by interior-design students, they ask: What’s the most important thing I should do to grow and succeed as a designer? I always say you should travel as much as you can.

Travel has long been a critical staple for designers to gain inspiration. Traveling to far-flung locations where the architecture, interiors, culture, food and dress are a significant departure from my day-to-day existence has always been a vital part of my continuing education. If you stop traveling, you stop growing as a designer.

Recently, I traveled to the mystical and ancient city of Marrakesh. Exotic, stimulating, over-the-top and oftentimes completely otherworldly, Marrakesh is nothing but inspiration. From the centuries-old medina to the souks filled with nearly 22,000 vendors, experiencing the best designed environments, combing through the endless array of stalls and seeking out the best treasures was not easy in my shortvisit, but I made the most of it.

If you can make it to Marrakesh, you’ll never forget it. Like anywhere special that you travel to, I suggest you come prepared with key measurements and an extra suitcase. A home should be a physical manifestation of you and your journeys, so do a little research ahead of time. Have a basic understanding of what the locals at your destination excel at crafting, and be prepared to haul some treasures home.

If Marrakesh is nowhere on your map of future travel plans, you can still find plenty of relatively inexpensive ways to infuse that Moroccan spirit into your home through U.S. stores selling items that bring Marrakesh to you. (See sidebar.)


Casablanca lantern from Z Gallerie. (tomkotophotography/Courtesy of Z Gallerie)

I always aim for maximum design inspiration on my trips and one easy way to ensure that is to choose a local accommodation that has a thoughtful, culturally inculcated and well-executed design itself. I found inspiration at Amanjena, a hotel owned by the Aman hotel group, which showcases the best of local handicrafts and design traditions. A plethora of arched openings, water basins, candle sconces and overscale lanterns with intricate metal screens all provide design 101 on iconic Moroccan aesthetics.

At Amanjena, less is oftentimes much more, and it’s hard to appreciate that when you’re negotiating your way through the narrow, vendor-filled paths of the souks. One benefit of staying at a well-edited hotel with an eye for design is that it becomes easier to see how those items you’ve been coveting might look installed in your own home. A hotel outfitted with local handicrafts, for example, can provide valuable insight into how that locally made duvet looks on a bed or how those three-foot-tall candle lanterns look flanking a fireplace.

As a design enthusiast looking for out-of-this-world inspiration, I couldn’t help but stop at Majorelle Garden. Resurrected by fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his life partner, Pierre Berge, Majorelle Garden originally belonged to French painter Jacques Majorelle, who arrived in Marrakesh in 1919 to recover from illness.

Saint Laurent was so enamored and inspired by Marrakesh, that in 1980 he purchased a villa adjacent to Majorelle Garden for his private home, along with the gardens themselves. Shortly after, he began an inspiring restoration process, keeping the distinct color palette established by the famous painter.

Echoed commonly in other Marrakesh structures, color, pattern and life spring forth the minute you pass through the exterior walls, and this is certainly true at Majorelle Garden. The distinct shade of cobalt blue dominating built surfaces on internal structures, now known as Majorelle blue, is shocking and refreshing all at once. And the juxtaposition against acid yellows and bright greens creates an unexpected surprise that manages to feel like an updated designer spin on traditional Moroccan tile colors.

Two on-property shops sell excellent and hard-to-find-elsewhere items such as jewelry, throw-pillow cases, blankets and other decorative accessories, many of which are done in the Majorelle Garden color palette. I walked away inspired by the extensive collection of antique Berber jewelry and artifacts from the private collection of Saint Laurent and Berge and the awe-inspiring plant collection that represents species from five continents. But mostly, I was inspired by the beautifully shocking color combinations and the way they showcase Marrakesh in a faithful but unusual way.

Very few make it to Marrakesh without a shopping excursion to the ancient souks north of the popular central square known as Jemaa el-Fna. Bargaining is requisite here, even if you’re a local, so get ready to smile, undercut the initial pricing by 75 percent, negotiate in good faith and be prepared to walk away if you can’t reach a deal.

Incredible local handiwork can still be found in the souks, but much of what is offered caters to tourists looking to bring something portable home. Like anywhere you travel, come to Marrakesh armed with measurements for rugs and runners, and an idea of a color palette that will work for your rooms, because there is a huge selection to sort through and having this bit of information can help you select expeditiously.

Silk tassels and wooden boxes (some inlaid and some beautifully showcasing the natural state of gorgeous olive and walnut wood) are also abundant, but they’re not all created equal. After days of sorting through countless stalls, I located one of the best for each kind of item. Having an idea of your electronic remote sizes is a huge plus because these boxes are the perfect way to elegantly stash them out of sight. They also work to get today’s mail contained or to harness those mounds of keys that always collect on the entry table.

Tassels are commonly found transformed into curtain tiebacks, but they’re also great to take home for holiday decor on the Christmas tree or adornment onto throw pillows and table runners.

Major credit card damage, however, was avoidable until I happened upon the three-story La Porte d’Or. I started on the first level looking for a Berber runner for my master bedroom and happily found an exemplary Middle Atlas Mriret specimen along with two additional rugs for future projects.

I’m ecstatic with my new runner. Its wooly plushness and gray, brown and cream colors delight me every time I walk on it. Proprietor Hakim Lebbar told me that his grandfather sold three carpets to Frank Lloyd Wright back in 1933 for his Falling Water and Taliesin West projects. Supposedly, they’re still there; after spending two weeks with my new runner, I can understand why.

The movement toward ever more eclectic interior environments is here to stay. As our world becomes more connected through travel and technology, our homes increasingly reflect that connectedness.

If you can make it to Marrakesh, you’ll never forget it and you’ll likely have some wonderful, lifelong home decor items with great stories behind them to remind you of your incredible journey. Even if you can’t make it there though, introduce a little Moroccan flair into your home and feel how instantly more exotic it suddenly becomes.

I’m already contemplating my next journey.

Yip is an interior designer and star of HGTV’s “Design Star” and “Bang for Your Buck.” Originally from McLean, Yip is based in Atlanta and New York. Follow him on Facebook (Vern Yip/Artist) and Twitter (@VernYipDesigns), and learn more at www.vernyip.com. His column will appear monthly.

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