Moroccan Style: Talitha Getty & Bill Willis

When people talk of the early days of Moroccan style and the European and American jetsetters of the 1960s and 70s, the talk is often about Talitha Getty. Her multi-cultural “couture of the souks” style is captured in this iconic Vogue magazine photo, nowadays re-created by travelers on riad rooftops:

Iconic Talitha Getty Photo

Moroccan Style: Talitha Getty and Fashion

Talitha and her husband, John Paul Getty, Jr., who was the son of the richest man in the world at the time, enjoyed a high-flying lifestyle that revolved around world leaders in music and fashion. Yves St. Laurent was a good friend and fellow resident of Marrakech. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones spent a Christmas together in their palace. And parties, many parties. Talitha Getty knew how to throw a party:

“A welcoming, fantastical, joyous life, at once sensible and sybaritic . . . Mrs. Getty prowls the marketplace, bringing back delights for the house and table. Best she brings back entertainers—dancers, acrobats, storytellers, geomancers and magicians. … While Salome is playing in the background, snake charmers charm and tea boys dance, balancing on their feet trays freighted with mint tea and burning candles.” – Diana Vreeland, Vogue

Like Lady Diana and Princess Grace of Monaco, Talitha’s mystique may be amplified because she died so young, at age 30. She is frozen in time with flawless skin and lush hair. Diana Vreeland said that Talitha was THE style icon during her Moroccan caftan and Persian jewelry years. Talitha to this day is still celebrated as a style muse by fashion designers.

Talitha Getty and Iron Grillwork Palais de la Zahir

Not a ton of photos of Talitha exist, but I captured all photos I could find on a Pinterest board of Talitha Getty style.

Moroccan Style: Architectural Arts in Marrakech

There was someone else who revolved in the Getty’s beautifully-designed orbit in Marrakech.

Someone who had a bigger, more enduring influence on Moroccan style. I bet you haven’t heard of him. He deserved greater public recognition because hallmarks of Marrakech style today are traced to him. He revived dying arts and filled opulent homes with beautiful tiles and tadelakt walls, ceilings, fireplaces, floors and furniture. The funny thing is, he wasn’t Moroccan. He was from Memphis.

His name was Bill Willis.

(Please forgive me if I slip up and call him Bruce Willis and don’t catch it. It wouldn’t be the first time!)

Have you admired the tadelakt walls in Marrakech homes? That is because of Bill Willis. Before Bill, tadelakt was used in the hammams because it’s waterproof. It was not used throughout houses. But this polished plaster surface is now the quintessential Marrakech wall.

Have you seen crazy, colorful combinations of patterned tiles on fireplaces in Marrakech? That is because of Bill Willis. He restored and revived zellij mosaic tilework and brought it into the 20th century with a “modern ideas with Moroccan materials” mentality.

Now, because Bill Willis outlived Talitha by many decades (she died in 1971, he in 2009), he had far more time to do his work. Bill’s design legacy in Marrakech began with Talitha Getty, so she started the ball rolling. Bill accompanied the Gettys on their honeymoon in Marrakech, where they bought a ramshackle rubble of a palace for $10,000 in 1966. It was once a royal place, but was now a ruin. Here’s Bill standing outside of it:

Bill Willis

This was in the 1960s, long before Marrakech was the tourist attraction that it is today. I imagine it was beyond rough for travelers used to luxury. But from this ruin, within only a few years, Bill Willis and the Gettys created breathtaking beauty. They created a place with a name prepared for debauchery:  Palais du Zahir (also known as Palais de la Zahia) — the Pleasure Palace.

Getty Palace in Marrakech

 

“Bill created the Marrakech look, and it started with that house,” says the decorator Jacques Grange

Not many photos of Palais du Zahir from the Getty days exist publicly. I have a rare book of Bill Willis’ work — you can only get it at the Majorelle Gardens bookstore in Marrakech, unless you’re willing to pay $300+ for the rare times it pops up on eBay or Amazon — and Palais du Zahir is not in the book. But recently, I found a video about Bill that shows the Getty palace. It’s a long video that explains Bill’s influence on Marrakech style as you know it today. The palace is shown at about the 6 minute mark:

Video credit from Jeremy Riggall on Vimeo.

I hit replay and screen-captured those Palais du Zahir rooms like a crazy obsessed woman!

Here’s a few more pictures of the palace from the 1970 January Vogue issue, photographed by Patrick Lichfield:

Talitha Getty in Palais du Zahir

Talitha and Bill Getty Marrakech

Palais de la Zahia Dining Area

If you ever want the original Vogue issue, I found mine on eBay and see them there occasionally. I could probably be persuaded to part with mine!

Today, the palace is owned by writer Bernard-Henri Lévy and his actress wife Arielle Dombasle. Here’s the most famous rooftop in Marrakech as it is today, shown in WSJ Magazine:

Palais du Zahir Rooftop

I notice, it has a different brick floor now. Unless this is a different area of the roof than what we see in the 1970 Vogue magazine.

Palais de la Zahia Window

Don’t those look like the same iron grilles that Talitha is peeking through in the photo above?

Palais de la Zahia nook

No longer a place of drug-fueled hedonistic parties (none other than Keith Richards said that Talitha Getty had access to the best opium), now the palace is a discreet address where feuding world leaders gather in privacy and try to broker peace, and for an intellectual writer to think and write in solitude. Some palace walls have stood since the 1500s or the 1700s, depending on who you ask. Oh, what the walls must have seen over the centuries!

The current owners worked with Bill Willis before his death to honor his contributions to the palace’s style. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“They still use the furniture Willis designed for the Gettys, including a four-poster bed painted like the Good Ship Lollipop in a fantasia of ice cream colors and Berber-inspired motifs.”

I share everything I found about the Getty palace on a Palais du Zahir Pinterest board.

Marrakech Design: Enduring Influence of Bill Willis

Bill Willis’ contribution to Marrakech and Moroccan style is now unnoticed and unappreciated. Some of that appears to be his own fault. Though he had a reputation as an exacting and demanding designer, he slept until late afternoon and his neighbors thought he was a vampire. And he was intoxicated during most waking hours. Despite that, his genius still prevailed in glorious Marrakech architecture. Efforts might be underway to raise his profile, possibly through the riad that was once his home in Marrakech.

How often does a designer influence the style of a whole city? And in a way that stimulates a whole travel and tourism industry, boosting an entire economy? At every corner you turn in Marrakech, there are photo ops. Old walls, old doors, what’s below your feet and above your head, somehow it’s all very special. Marrakech inspires our imaginations. Captures us and makes us want to return. Would Bill Willis have ever imagined that happening? Beyond many nondescript doors and plain medina walls there is glittering opulence, pierced metal lanterns casting dancing shadows, woven textiles exploding with color against fantastical patterned walls. Run your hands along the cool smooth tadelakt walls. Bill Willis made that possible.

Inspired by a Moroccan Artist’s Colony

My workdays are full of logic, science, and project management. The bit of art during the day is about the communications we create to influence people. So by nightfall, I’m looking for balance in visual arts. One reason I went to Marrakech in 2014 was to get surrounded by beauty, to get inspired to create visual things I hadn’t thought of doing before.

An inspiring place was the Al Maqam artist’s colony in Tahanaout, about a half hour drive outside Marrakech on the way to the Atlas Mountains. A New York Times article tells you more about the place. 

A lot of doors and windows caught my eye there, and the NYT article mentions that the founder of the colony bought old doors and windows at Morocco flea markets and gradually built the compound room by room.

Al Maqam Artist Colony Stone Window Wood Carved Door

Al Maqam Artist Colony

Old Moroccan Wood Door

Maybe that’s how we’re going to decorate the India pied-à-terre, bit by bit from pieces from here and there. 

Here’s more photos from the artist’s colony, decorated as you might expect — creative, eclectic, lots of interesting proportions, playing with balance, and curious collections of objects. I spent too much time there looking at the place through my iPhone, I think now, but at least I captured these.

Clearly I had a fascination with their doors. But my doors at home in the American Midwest don’t look like this, so it was like get an eye-full of these fantastic doors while you can:

A Moroccan Door

Do  you see stencil patterns there? I do!

Lots of color and style in a little courtyard seating area:

Moroccan Artist Colony Courtyard Seating

It’s just a simple bench. But the shabby paint job, the fabric on the too-big cushion, all a perfect boho combo:

Boho Bench Morocco

The kitchen and all its collections:

Moroccan Artist Colony Kitchen

I liked this collection of frames, maybe collected over time but all coordinated. So don’t get too super matchy-matchy, mis-match a bit:

Morocco Picture Frames

Frames like these don’t have to cost a lot. I’ve found frames very similar to these at Target and HomeGoods.

Yes. These are what you might think they are. We asked:

Collection

They were in a corner of a dining room. Told you. Eclectic. Creative.

Stylists, designers, bloggers and instagrammers all over the U.S. are doing this mix-matched textile boho-licious look with piles of pillows. Perhaps this place is an original for this:

Pile of Moroccan Pillows

There was no time spent on creating a “just enough carelessness” look. (I know how photo shoots and styling can be!) That’s just how the pillows were.

Here I back up a bit. There’s the shabby simple bench, a carved door used as a table (!!!), and the full effect of all the pillows and patterns:

Moroccan Seating

And the always-present wine glasses. Of which I had too much on an empty stomach before lunch and photos got fuzzy after awhile.

Just a pile of posts against a wall. I liked the composition. Or maybe this was because of the wine. Whatever. Enjoy:

Posts in Moroccan Artists Colony

I have a pile of wood posts leaning against our house in the backyard right now, and I assure you, it definitely doesn’t have any artistic effect. So I say appreciate this — it’s not easy to make a pile of posts look attractive!

A little eclectic composition of things:

Garden Composition in Moroccan Artist Colony

I’d like to create this effect with some old things just lying around my living room. But in my hands, they might look like things that I was too lazy to move down to the basement, so there they sit.

Pots. Wall. Window grates. Each by themselves, no big deal. But together, a stunning combo, I think:

Moroccan Style

All these pieces added up to an inspiring creative space. It’s a big place – we got a tour through many indoor and outdoor rooms and this is just a glimpse. What stands out to me are the contrasts, the textures, the collections, the colors. You can take bits and pieces of ideas and weave them into your own space.

Because there’s too much to capture in photos, here is a video with the founder. It shows scenes of the compound and art through to the end, and you get a good idea of the place:

Moroccan Pattern Mixes

If you like global style, you’ve probably seen many photos of the sights of Morocco on Pinterest, Flickr, traveler blogs or the famous My Marrakesh blog. Of course there are the big sights that everyone photographs. But each person might photograph things differently at these places. Different things catch our eyes. What caught my eye were the mixes of patterns. Small scenes. Little snippets. Now that I look back over photos, those are my favorites. Instead of an entire door, I want to drink in the detail of part of the door. Because it’s easy to whiz by and not take a moment to stop and appreciate the close-ups while there. Here are some Moroccan pattern mixes …

This was captured my first night in Marrakech:

Marrakech Door in Souks

That first night I bravely forged ahead into the souks by myself and quickly got lost. After walking what felt like 20 miles, I eventually found our riad again. I wasn’t sure where to go, but I knew when I was going in the wrong direction. Finally after asking people and a guy on a bike watching out for me (and never asking me for any money), I found the Jemaa el Fna and the familiar lane to our riad. Whew! After that I made sure to notice more “visual bread crumbs” instead of gaping at the tile patterns and all the stuff hanging around.

This next one was photographed by Melanie Royals of Royal Design Studio, who hosted our Paint and Play trip. It’s layers of patterns from a Moroccan pierced metal lantern and a wood screen in Le Tanjia restaurant:

Moroccan Lantern and Screen Patterns

These are painted doors in our riad, Maison du Tresor, and tiled floor. The door and floor work well together:

Maison du Tresor Painted Door and Tile

This tile and carved marble is at Bahia Palace. I have a lot more photos from the palace to share in a future post:

Bahia Palace Patterns

A mix of patterns at the Saadian Tombs:

Saadian Tombs Patterns

I love this motif at the entrance to Dar Moha restaurant. I want a stencil of this!

Dar Moha

Do these pics all look fuzzy to you? They look fuzzy to me. For someone who’s so visual, my eyes are really bad! So I’m not sure if they really are blurry or I’m having a bad eye day like some people have bad hair days.

Between the chair, the chest and the rug, this is a lively pattern mix in Mustapha Blaoui’s shop. I’d be very happy if my house looked like this:

Patterns in Mustapha Blaoui

Spotted on a wall in the souks. Love this:

Scene on Marrakech Souk Wall

More Marrakech pics and posts coming soon!