Maison Bagan is serving up Zellige tilework with a twist in its unique home décor collection
Decorating everything from mosques to hammams, zellige or Zellij tilework is an ancient art form that spans centuries and geographies, having originated almost a thousand years ago in the Arab world. In their peregrinations, tribal groups, clans, and families spread out this mesmerizing art form to the four corners of the Middle East and Europe, from Samarkand to Cordova.
The style of zellige we know today, which includes all sorts of colors and complicated geometries, originated around the 14th century in the Maghreb region, and especially in Morocco. As wonderful as it is to behold, the art of zellige tiling is in decline due to the incredible amount of hard work it takes to make the tiles before you even get to piecing them together in complicated designs.
First, Miocene grey clay from around Fez and Meknes is kneaded with water by hand, before being shaped into square tiles that are left to dry. Expert artisans then draw the shapes of the various tesserae, such as stars, octagons, and crosses of various kinds. With a scalpel, the Maallem, as the zellige master is called, cuts them and files off the edges, before dying and cooking them in rustic ovens running at different temperatures according to the shape and color of the tesserae.
Once ready, the monochromatic enameled tiles are painstakingly pieced together one by one in stunning and varied designs, ranging from geometric shapes to patterns and colors that seamlessly combine the elements of earth, water, and fire, to arrive at a junction of beauty synonymous with the ancient tradition of mosaic making.
While some formal zellige training exists in Morocco, much of the work is passed down from generation to generation from the master Maallems to their apprentices, who require a life-long dedication to get to the level of artistry and expertise needed to create the mosaics.
In this context, the work of Marrakech-based brand Maison Bagan is both lifesaving and revolutionary at once.
Founded by Hanane Zamani in 2017, Maison Bagan is working hard to bring an age-old craft to the 21st-century homes of young Moroccans, by moving zellige tilework from their traditional uses as floor or walls paving, to objects of everyday use, like cutting boards, trays, and mirrors.
“My grandmother’s house in the Marrakech medina was full of zellige. When I was a child I used to marvel at her beautiful tilework and wondered why we didn’t have any at my parents’. I didn’t want this beautiful part of our Moroccan culture to be lost, so I thought about ways of making it more appealing to the young generations” Hanane said.
Her thinking definitely yielded results, and today the products her team crafts in their Marrakech-based studio find trendy homes among Moroccan millennials. Their three-piece star tray is the most popular in the collection, while the puzzle trays with removable tiles are a must for any interior décor enthusiast, perfectly marrying tradition and practicality.
Because filling the trays and chopping boards with traditional zellige tesserae would make them too heavy to use, the tiles are instead printed, fully respecting the geometrical patterns and difficult mathematical calculations of original zellige designs. Hanane’s drawings are put on paper by her graphic designer extraordinaire Younes, while local artisans make everything from scratch, including the trays themselves.
“The creation process is truly collaborative: we all come up with ideas for the designs and test them on a lot of prototypes before reaching a final product we’re all happy with. Seeing how the whole team works together to make a beautiful piece absolutely warms my heart.”
Hanane is also pushing boundaries by being a solo female entrepreneur in a field that for centuries has been male-dominated. As a matter of fact, all the artisans and master Maallems have traditionally been male ever since the art form was created, so Hanane sometimes needs to come to terms with several centuries’ worth of preconceptions of who should be doing this work and how. “While being a woman creator in Morocco today isn’t such an issue anymore, you still need to have guts and be absolutely sure of what you want to achieve.”