Monday, February 27, 2012

Ooh La La: La Mamounia in Marrakech

Hotel I Adore:  On a recent visit to Morocco I discovered and stayed at the divine and utterly romantic La Mamounia hotel in the medina in Marrakech. Swoon!

Recently reopened after a multi-year renovation, this most luxurious and romantic hotel was brilliantly re-imagined by the masterly Paris-based designer, Jacques Garcia.

“It’s the myth about the myth, the refuge of the traveler to the Orient,” said the great Garcia.

Imagine glass-faceted lanterns glimmering on rose-scented terraces, sculpted arched doorways, lavish plasterwork, silken curtains, crimson velvet chairs reminiscent of Ingres, gold silk pillows with a Directoire feeling, hand-crafted incised bronze torcheres casting mysterious shadows. It’s a Delacroix painting, a smoky Paul Bowles dream.

I could stay there forever. 

La Mamounia is an ultra-private escape, where the finest Moroccan craftsmanship and traditional style and materials have been used to dramatic and thrilling effect. And the suites have a luxurious tranquility, calm and elegance seldom seen.

In the morning my butler (in a traditional gold-braided jacket and neat white shirt, white gloves) arrives with the ‘spa breakfast’ of fresh cut mango, plum, apple, pear and papaya. It’s a vivid Matisse painting on the plate.

He opens the silken curtains and I emerge from the enveloping darkness of my suite onto the terrace and the full force of the Moroccan day, the sun exploding from flickering palm trees. In the distance, a light dusting of snow is visible along the peaks of the Atlas Mountains. 

Come with me for an inspiring visit. 

In 1922, the French architects Henri Prost and Antoine Marchisio created a hotel that would combine traditional Moroccan themes with a light touch of Art Deco.

Their concept reflected the sense of disorientation that the foreign traveler, with an imagination already filled with Moroccan literature and exotic dreams hoped to find in this place, commented writer Khireddine Mourad.

And today, still, La Mamounia has a mysterious, glamorous and highly seductive air, the ideal sense of ‘otherness’ that I want when I travel. 

"There is a hushed feeling in the air in Morocco, as if the quiet were a conscious force, which, resenting the intrusion of sound minimizes and disperses sound straightaway. Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem fainthearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape. At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really goes dark."—Paul Bowles ‘Their Heads are Green and Their Faces are Blue.’

Morocco: it is the next great place to visit. In particular Marrakech.

I’ve always wanted to return, after an all-too brief visit to Casablanca some time ago.

This visit I circled through Essaouira on the coast and the divine L’Heure Bleue Palais hotel—and then arrived in captivating Marrakech. There I was fortunate indeed to set down my bags at La Mamounia. 

Imagine suites with double terraces high above a twenty-acre palm garden, with views of historic mosques silhouetted against the legendary Atlas Mountains.

Here, I retire to a luscious sitting room and suite with hand-painted cedar doors, honed white marble bathrooms, exclusive perfumes and soaps and lotions by Olivia Giacobetti (one of my favorite modern perfumers, based in Paris), lavish Moroccan tiles patterning the wainscot, and flickering lights from Moroccan lanterns.

All is calm, private, ethereal, fragrant and truly luxurious.

Interesting: Jacques Garcia’s concept in his recent remodel/update was to take it back in time to a more romantic era, the mysterious Moroccan past, idealized, French influenced, and entirely captivating. 

“It was aboard an Air France Caravelle that we arrived in Marrakech in February 1966, Yves and I. Of course, we stayed at La Mamounia, which was at the time full of an almost old-fashion atmosphere of the past. We were welcomed to this palace by Camille, the concierge. In 1966, memories at La Mamounia were vibrant, the rooms and suites simple, comfortable, and not trying to impress. That for us has always been true luxury.”
— Pierre Berge, in his privately published ‘Yves Saint Laurent, A Moroccan Passion’ November 2010. Translated from the French.

A Little History of La Mamounia 

The hotel was built in the Moroccan style—stucco walls, tiled roof, terraces and 20-acres of garden—in 1923.

From the beginning of its story, La Mamounia has never been large enough to satisfy all the guests who wanted to be accommodated. Until the end of thirties, the hotel had only fifty rooms. But it was expanded in 1946 to include 100 rooms, then refurbished successively in 1950, 1953, 1986 and finally a reopening with 210 keys in 2010. 

Many famous people have visited La Mamounia. Winston Churchill stayed through many winters. He liked to wander along the balcony, following the sun on its daily route in order to render the color of his paintings as realistic as possible. Several of his paintings of La Mamounia’s gardens hang in the Churchill museum in England.

“It is the most lovely spot in the whole world”, said Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943. Churchill made his remark while he gazed at one of the beautiful sunsets for which the city is famous. Another anecdote from La Mamounia’s rich archive (I found it in the hotel library) involves General Charles de Gaulle who also spent a night in the hotel during the same period. The director of the hotel was obliged to have a special bed made to accommodate the statesman’s full height. 

La Mamounia is also the secret hideaway for Sharon Stone, Salma Hayek, Orlando Bloom, Eva Mendes, Miranda Kerr, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Juliette Binoche, along with fashion luminaries and international style-setters.

Over the years La Mamounia has attracted the attention of both French and American filmmakers. Jean Tissier filmed “Alerte au Sud” with Eric Von Stroheim in 1953. Hitchcock’s film, “The man who knew too much” was also filmed there. 

There are so many discreet entrances and exits to the hotel that it is possible to stay there without anyone catching on.

I highly recommend arriving early, then sipping tea in the palm gardens, reading on a private terrace, lunch beside the pool, perhaps making a little excursion to the delightful Majorelle Garden, then returning for a drink of chilled Cox’s Orange apple juice or nectar of peach juice in the bar.

A swim, a spa treatment, and definitely dinner at Les Marocains restaurant at the hotel…to the sound of Andalusian music played on traditional lutes. Dinner to the sound of a lute! Well, four lutes. I cannot think of anything more wonderful. 

I walked to the restaurant for dinner late one evening in the rain. I hear the sounds of Andalusian lute music floating down from Les Marocains.

Raindrops splashed loudly on banana palm leaves high above. The air was fragrant with jasmine, gardenia, damp grass and palm leaves, a drift of smoke, and moist earth. I float into a fugue state, altered consciousness.

Later, I sit for hours on my terrace, listening to the distant sounds of the Medina, watching shadows moving across the garden, thinking of painters like Matisse who have been beguiled by this mysterious ‘otherness’.

I can’t wait to return. 

Matisse in Morocco, 1910
Some of the most beautiful images Matisse painted were his creations during a winter in Morocco at the turn of the century.

Morocco’s vivid colors, exotic costumes and handsome people would inspire him for the rest of his life. Now, over a century later, ghosts of Matisse would appear—as I was walking through the souk in Marrakech or exploring the Medina. Today, still, Moroccans still dress in the traditional costumes Matisse so loved. 

Books on Morocco and La Mamounia
My dear friend Jean Larette gave me ‘La Mamounia’ a lavishly illustrated book on the hotel (published by Assouline), with an introduction by Laure Verchere. Highly recommended.

A travel book and research source that is highly detailed and rich with beautiful writing is ‘Morocco, An Inspired Anthology and Travel Source’. It is part of The Collected Traveler series by the great Barry Kerper (a former book editor of mine).

She offers in-depth information on Moroccan culture, food, history, travel, people, collecting, antiques, art, and handcrafts. Highly recommended. 

Photography courtesy La Mamounia hotel, published here with express permission.

For more information and bookings:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Decorator I Love: Bravo, Phoebe Howard

The great and talented Mrs. Howard’s glamorous and inspiring new book, ‘The Joy of Decorating, Southern Style with Mrs. Howard’ celebrates the beauty of Southern style and a gracious approach to living.

Written in collaboration with the great expert on Southern regional style and design, Susan Sully, the book is both style inspiration and an authoritative guide. 

In ‘The Joy of Decorating’, the divine Mrs. Howard has organized design projects by theme: Inviting, Inspiring, Timeless, Graceful, Tranquil, Casual and Comfortable.

These are all descriptions that have been used to describe Mrs. Howard’s work. They illustrate the many different ways she strives to make her houses look and feel. 

The book epitomizes the grace and elegance of Southern interior design. After reading it with Mrs. Howard as a trusted guide, I think I’m getting a glimpse of why Southern style and décor are so compelling. 

‘Simplicity is the essence of tranquility.’—Mrs. Howard 

Special offer to the readers of The Style Saloniste:

Through a special agreement with Mrs. Howard, my readers can get the book for 20 percent off: You pay $40 instead of $50.

To purchase a signed copy of the book directly from Mrs. Howard, please use the following discount code below when purchasing from the site Click on ‘buy the book’.

The discount code is TSSJOD

When you go to the Phoebe Howard website, check on ‘buy the book’, click on ‘discount,’ add the code (TSSJOD), and then be sure to hit ‘update’ to the right of the code box.

With each book purchased through Phoebe Howard readers will also receive an elegant free paint chart, which lists 15 of Phoebe’s favorite paint combinations of wall, trim and ceiling colors. It is truly inspiring.

The colors are subtle, surprising, versatile and seductive. This special chart will provide inspiration for years of painting (and is a reason to purchase the book).

Included in the 257 page book is a resource list, and highly inspiring chapters on dining rooms, paint colors, casual rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms (delicious) and the cream of the crop of Mrs. Howard’s decorating.

Phoebe Howard with her husband and collaborator, Jim Howard.

"To walk into a Phoebe Howard room is to walk into a calm, elegant world that is naturally comfortable. Phoebe’s rooms take the edge off life.

Two years ago House Beautiful asked Phoebe and her husband Jim to design an apartment in New York for our show house project called Hearst Designer Visions. On the 50-something floor of a Mid-town building, it was like living inside a cloud. An apartment at that height can be unnerving, but this one was calm and soothing. Phoebe's rooms take the edge off life."
  — Newell Turner, Editor-in-Chief, House Beautiful 

Come with me for a private and exclusive STYLE SALONISTE chat with Phoebe Howard. I recently sat down for a conversation with Phoebe. Pour yourself a glass of wine or make a cup of tea, and join us for our tete-a-tete.

DDS: Phoebe, congratulations on your new book, your first book! It is so fresh and wonderfully inspiring. It's beautiful. I adore your quotes like, ‘I try to imagine dining rooms in full swing, candles burning, music playing, glasses tinkling, people laughing and enjoying time together.” You must have enjoyed working on your book. 
PH: Thanks! I really did enjoy the process. Doug Turshen, the book's designer, has a great eye and made it so easy for me. Also, Susan Sully, who wrote the text, is very talented and easy to work with. The hard part was editing my photography. I would have liked to have included some other images. I am already thinking about another book. It is kind of like a pregnancy — hard when you are going through it, but when you have the baby, you somehow forget about all the pain! 

DDS: There are such a variety of interiors all over the East Coast—but they have a consistent beautifully edited look and a clarity that is rare in design today. They're restrained, superbly edited, crisp, fresh, and calm. 
PH: Thank you, Diane. I know that I bring a sense of order to my rooms. I simply don't like clutter or chaos, and I always try to inject some personality from my clients into my projects. That is always my goal. I think the fact that I am untrained formally in design gives my rooms a natural feeling, and I think some decorators simply try too hard or get too tricky. I am practical, and it is important to me that my rooms really function for their intended purpose as well as be beautiful. 

DDS: This is Southern without the heavy-handed clichés. You believe that the best gift you can give yourself is a pocket of tranquility in a busy life. 
PH: Southern people care about their interiors more than any other region of this country, in my opinion. We have all been raised to give our homes priority, and that they should always feel gracious and welcoming. It is just part of our genetic makeup, something you can't fight! 

DDS: You work on every project with your husband Jim. It is definitely the interior architecture of Jim—who gets the interiors right first and then you can decorate. He understands proportion and balance and harmony—that are essential to any interior no matter the location or architecture. 
PH: Jim and I do not work on every project together, but on a select few each year. We do design the stores together, and he does the architectural shell, while I decorate them and merchandise them. It is very hard to decorate a room with no architectural integrity. Jim and I are very lucky that we have complementary skills, and it is a business model that works for us. We are actually going to build a new house for ourselves sometime in the near future. We have never lived in a new house, always renovated older houses. We are both very excited and looking forward to designing and building this house.

We were recently working on our house in Jacksonville together. Jim suggested that we should use high-gloss lacquer on the ceiling, which has a beautiful crown molding. By capturing and reflecting the light, the glossy paint seems to lift the eight-foot ceiling high above the room. It adds a glow, an extra dimension. So our collaboration enhances our work enormously. 

DDS: Your forte is rich neutrals, don't you think? It's never a simple white! It's never just plain beige. The background you create with these complex neutrals gives your room a very harmonious feeling. 
PH: It is true. I love neutrals for myself personally. I like to say that I am married to beige, and I have affairs with color! I have learned to embrace color, and I am definitely not afraid of it. It is actually a lot harder for me to decorate a neutral space, because the subtle nuances have a strong impact. I also think that in a neutral room, you really need good architecture, good antiques, and art.

Color is something that I think can disguise a lot of flaws. My clients usually fall into two groups, those who love color, and those that don't. There is rarely much crossover. 

DDS: I live in California and love it. But the moment I read the expression 'Southern Style' I want to get on a plane. I think it is the rich history implied in those old mahogany beds and the dark wood furniture that suggests plantations and centuries of old families. 

But you do it with a light hand.
PH: Come on down, not only would you see some lovely places, but we would make sure you have a good time as well! We love to entertain and love any excuse for a party. And one thing is for sure: there are lots of interesting characters so you will never be bored. The South is a very interesting, layered and complex place. We might talk slow, but we are anything but! 

DDS: Phoebe, thank you so much. Wonderful to chat. 

About Mrs. Howard

Fourteen years ago, Phoebe and Jim Howard opened the doors to their first store, Mrs. Howard, in Jacksonville, Florida, hoping to demystify the decorating process for their customers. The goal was simple: to create a retail space that showcased Jim's architectural and decorating talent, and Phoebe's natural skills for buying, decorating and merchandising. With equal parts of exceptional customer service and a well-rounded mix of furniture, antiques and accessories, the store was an instant success. Five years later, they added another store, Max & Company, which features a younger, more modern appeal. Now, the Howards have Mrs. Howard and Max & Company stores in Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.

Over the years, Phoebe Howard's penchant for creating stylish spaces has evolved into her own brand of decorating, which has garnered praise from national media as well as her clients. Known for her fresh take on traditional style, Phoebe's work can only be characterized by its timelessness and her mantra to "keep it pretty." While she is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on Southern style, Phoebe is well regarded for her business acumen as well, catering to both homeowners as well as other members of the design community (including decorators, interior designers and architects) who have embraced the Mrs. Howard aesthetic for their own clients. Through her shops, she was one of the first entrepreneurs in Florida to introduce unique domestic and international lines to the area. And today, she continues to scour the globe for new products for her stores and clients, as well as create her own exclusive line of pillows, lamps, mirrors and case goods.

The Mrs. Howard and Max & Company shops, as well as Phoebe's own decorating projects, are a veritable library of design inspiration, and have been published in Elle Decor, House Beautiful, Coastal Living, Cottage Living, Southern Accents, InStyle and Traditional Home, among others. 

Phoebe will be on a book tour. Readers can see the preliminary tour schedule here:

Photo credits: 
Josh Savage Gibson was the principal photographer for the book. Photography used her with express permission of the publisher.

Where to find Phoebe Howard:
online at 
and Jim:

(there is a Mrs. Howard and a Max & Company store at each of these addresses) 

425 Peachtree Hills Avenue Suite #23
Atlanta, GA 30305

Jacksonville Beach
2400 Third Street South Suite #304
Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250

4128 Herschel Street
Jacksonville, FL 32210


1001 East Morehead Street
Charlotte, NC 28204

Store Hours: M-F 10-5, Sat 11-4