Photography courtesy of El Fenn
More often than not, when you’re looking for a memento to remember a trip by, you’ll purchase something small enough to fit into your burgeoning suitcase. A trinket, magnet, hat, picture or snow globe. But friends Vanessa Branson and Howell James did away with the size restriction when they started El Fenn in 2002.
“While on holiday… and after a very good lunch, [they] decided it would be fun to buy a small house in the medina as a ‘souvenir’,” says Willem Smit, the hotel’s general manager. As the story goes, a real estate agent took them to the property, then a “crumbling majestic ruin”, and they were captured by its beauty. “It was a little bigger than their original concept of a small souvenir,” laughs Willem.
Neither had any hotel experience; Howell was the global head of corporate communications at Christie’s while Vanessa’s background was in art, and works from her personal collection now hang throughout the hotel (there’s also that small point of being Sir Richard Branson’s sister).
“There was a beautiful base,” says Willem of El Fenn’s restoration. “Local craftsman used traditional techniques to breathe new life into the building. Tadelakt, or polished lime plastering, was used in a rainbow of colours to create walls, baths and bed frames. Original tiling was renovated and carved cedar ceilings restored.”
They started with just six bedrooms and big dreams from the beginning, soon purchasing neighbouring riads and engaging Moroccan architect Amine Kabbaj.
“El Fenn has always been and is still very much about being a guest at someone’s private home. An eclectic feeling is therefore very important,” shares Willem, adding that curating a collection of Moroccan vintage rugs and traditional Moroccan fabrics has been key to the riad’s aesthetic. Though he’s tight-lipped as to the guest list (“I’m sorry, but we never tell…”) a little snooping reveals El Fenn is a favourite of Kim Cattrall, Annie Lennox and Hugh Jackman. Still, Willem says the stories of those they have turned away are even more intriguing (“But again, we never tell…”).
One thing that’s not a mystery is the impressive artwork within the space. After all, El Fenn literally means ‘house of art’.
“Dine in the restaurant under a stunning chandelier created by Francis Upritchard or curl up with a book in the library next to a work by British- Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj,” explains Willem. “On your bedroom walls you might find a series of ink studies by Sir Antony Gormley or a set of photographs taken [by] Terence Donovan on a trip to Morocco in the 1960s. In the corridors, you’ll see dappled light filtering from pressure cookers transformed into conceptual art by Batoul S’Himi, while Guy Tillim’s arresting series of portraits of Congolese boy soldiers hangs outside the restaurant.
“Visually it is truly the icing on the cake,” says Willem. We couldn’t agree more.