IZZA, Marrakech: The Luxurious New Riad Where Art Imitates Life

In Marrakech’s venerable medina, a new riad is channelling the spirit of iconic designer Bill Willis while showcasing a world-beating collection of digital art

Bill Willis - Tennessee born, educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris - arrived in Marrakech with just the right people and at just the right time. It was 1967, and the architect and interior designer was tagging along in the company of John Paul Getty Jr and his new wife, Talitha. Handsome and hedonistic, he fell fast and hard for the Red City, which offered him all the exoticism, creative inspiration, acceptance and sense of belonging he'd been missing. In return, his gift would be to make Moroccans fall back in love with their North African design heritage.

As it happens, IZZA, the recently opened riad that takes Willis as its muse, has arrived on Marrakech's scene at another golden moment on the city's artistic timeline. The Sixties may have seen Moroccan tourism revenues double, thanks to the influx of hippies, musicians, writers and the fabulous, freewheeling wealthy, but in recent years - despite a two-year Covid shutdown and earthquake - there's been a sense of renewal in the city's creative corners. It's evident in new galleries such as the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), ateliers and concept stores in the edgy industrial district of Sidi Ghanem, and a thriving music scene - witness the Oasis Festival that taps a rich vein of global electronica talent and is held annually in Ouarzazate, on the city's doorstep.

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At IZZA, a self-styled "museum in the medina", the artistic theme is apparent as soon as you step through the doorway. In the lobby, laid with traditional zellige tiles in green and white and decorated in low-key modernist style, striking outsize photographic portraits gaze down from the walls. Part of a series called The Moroccans, they were shot by Leila Alaoui, who was killed in a 2016 terrorist attack while on assignment for the UN in Burkina Faso, aged just 33.

Alaoui photographed the subjects from her mobile studio as she travelled Morocco's rural regions with the aim of capturing the country's cultural diversity. As you sit down to a welcome tray of orange blossom milk and sweet dates, they draw your eye, each man and woman in traditional dress, as Alaoui found them, each staring intently into the camera from the same anonymous black backdrop.

IZZA, Marrakech, Morocco

Dominant as they are, these portraits only scratch the surface of IZZA's groundbreaking collection, which includes one of the world's largest physical collections of NFTs and more than 300 framed pieces of art with a combined value of at least £5 million.

Art and imagery is everywhere here, and in varying styles. There are gritty black and whites of the Amazon by Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, and abstract works by the breakout American star of generative art, Tyler Hobbs. On the rooftop terrace, a two-metre-wide screen displays Turkish artist Refik Anadol's swirling "Machine Hallucinations - Space | Chapter II: Mars". A generative AI data painting (that's a motion artwork to you and me), it was created from millions of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter telescope images and is a mesmerising distraction for guests, especially after sunset, when the colours really start to pop. And here and there, you come across 50-year-old snapshots with Bill Willis in frame.

Willis underpins much of what's going on at IZZA, which takes mid-century style as its muse, together with the life and times of the US designer. Once Willis found Marrakech, he never went back. He remained until his death in 2009, partying with the Stones, designing for the likes of French socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and Italian style icon Marella Agnelli, and hanging out with power couple Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who were both his clients and close friends.

Izza, Marrakech, Morocco

All of this is what's being channelled at IZZA: the creativity and sociability of the era. It took eight years to create the 14-room dar, or "house", before it opened in September. Set in the north-west quadrant of the medina, IZZA is the product of a major rebuild that saw the amalgamation of seven different riads into one. It is, as general manager Mohamed Ait Belhaj puts it, a "patchwork of homes brought together, their walls sensitively removed and energies combined". At its heart is a long, gleaming emerald-coloured pool that covers you like a second skin when you slip into its glossy waters, so close to blood temperature does it feel.

The property (and its one apartment-style room) is named for Lalla Izza, a Berber woman who owned the original 19th-century building that occupied the site. But there are more ghosts here, with each of the other 13 rooms named for an iconic "freedom seeker" who came to create and carouse in Marrakech - Grace Jones, Jack Kerouac, Cecil Beaton and Marianne Faithful among them. There's also one for Christine Alaoui, French socialite, mother of Laila and friend of Willis.

Izza, Marrakech, Morocco

On the wall of the small but elegant Bill's Bar - with its interior that references the Willis-designed Rick's Café in Casablanca - a collage of frames offers a peek into this complicated man's private life. Here's Bill, arm draped around Yves Saint Laurent. There he is posing in a sequence of candid portraits, all bare chest and defiant, angular cheekbones.

Between copious quantities of alcohol and bumps of cocaine, Willis dug deep into the artisanship and crafts of North Africa, making abundant use of traditional materials, particularly zellige tiles and tadelakt, the Moroccan style of polished plaster. He loved fireplaces, incorporating them everywhere from his own home, Dar Noujoum, an 18th-century building that had once housed a royal harem, to Dar Yacout, an elaborate, labyrinthine restaurant around the corner from IZZA with powerful Thousand and One Nights vibes.

IZZA has its own design surprises. Every room is idiosyncratically fitted out with hand-selected pieces of vintage furniture, the constant being the decades of the 1940s through 1960s. Books are everywhere, and as strong on the arts as you'd expect. There are rooms at the top of steep, narrow stairways, many featuring odd angles. Some, like Yves, are washed in a peaceful pinkish colour scheme; others, like Christina, come in cool greys. In the double-storey room called IZZA, a challenging, staggered tadelakt staircase leads unexpectedly up a book-lined wall to the mezzanine level.

Izza, Marrakech, Morocco

At the back of the tranquil, tree-studded inner courtyard, an arabesque wooden door set in a broader archway leads you to a long, dimly lit lounge space with a fireplace crackling cosily at one end - another subtle reference to Willis.

"He brought fireplaces to Marrakech," declares Fatima Akhrouf, co-owner of Dar Yacout, who worked with Willis in his later years and became his friend. Over a glass of champagne in the atmospheric lounge bar above her traditional Moroccan restaurant, now one of Marrakech's most iconic, she remembers Willis with a glint in her eye.

"He was a man of contradictions. He would say he hated 'normal' people; if he didn't like you he wouldn't work with you. But what was important to him was how welcoming it was here."

Willis' home overlooked a cemetery - a situation that he seemed to find life-affirming rather than confronting - and he sometimes entertained his friend Maria Callas there. "He would put opera on from 1am to 4am and play it through the windows over the cemetery," says Akhrouf. "He loved Maria Callas. When she was visiting him, nobody would go there."

Togetherness is a running theme at IZZA, which has dubbed itself a "House of Friends". You experience it in the warm, unstuffy and unfailingly kind service but also in the food offering, with its lunch and dinner menus based on sharing and served on the rooftop, which consists of several terraces linked together from the formerly separate riads.

The dining concept was created by Paul Weaver and is now overseen by head chef Ahmad El Hardoum, who emphasises the importance of locally sourced ingredients, put to good use in traditional Moroccan dishes given a modern twist. At breakfast, a fruit salad is so intricately cut and perfectly arranged, you could photograph it and turn it into an NFT. There are shakshuka-style Berber eggs, freshly mixed smoothies and traditional pancakes with little glass pots of amlou, the almond, honey and argan oil condiment that's a Moroccan staple.

During the day, you might graze on crab croquettes, a burger, or a pickled watermelon salad with mint and feta, but night is when the magic happens, as the sun drops and the mayhem of the surrounding medina filters up towards the peach-hued sky.

As great platters of carefully spiced monkfish tagine, and slow-roasted lamb - accompanied by some seriously good Moroccan wines - are eased down the long, green-tiled tables, the last stragglers for dinner slide on over from the glamorous bar. The night is invariably young. Bill Willis, who famously spent most of his waking hours after dark, sleeping through the day, would surely approve.

The Lowdown

Doubles cost from £140 a night, including breakfast, airport transfer on arrival, and a 45-minute massage in IZZA's spa and hammam treatment room. izza.com

Read more about Bill Willis and watch a documentary about his life at billwillis.com

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