By Nicole Gray
Vivid pops of colour and texture play against a calm backdrop to make this luxury barn conversion an oasis of cool on Morocco’s picturesque Atlantic coast.
After running a successful floristry business in Knightsbridge and having redesigned several London houses, Emma decided it was time for a creative change. Little did she know that a new challenge would present itself during a short break to Morocco.
‘I went there for three days and ended up buying a house,’ she laughs. ‘I went at a time when Morocco was a fairly undiscovered dot on the map and fell in love with the beautiful architecture and vivid colours. Within a few months I had the keys to our house and a new life. It wasn’t on my agenda at all.’
Emma Wilson, founder of boutique villas company Castles in the Sand and co-founder of Beldi Rugs, lives in this converted two-bedroom barn in Essaouira, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, with her son Kai, seven, and dogs Chica, Pluto and Boris
A poured concrete floor gives continuity to the kitchen and sitting area, which was originally two rooms. The brick walls are finished with tadelakt, a traditional Moroccan waterproof lime plaster. The Crush sign is a Marrakech flea-market find. The Kartell stools (kartell.com) were shipped over from London
Emma’s dog Chica likes to lie in the sun on the ground-floor terrace: ‘We always find her snoozing on the rugs,’ says Emma. They are a combination of her personal collection and designs available from Beldi Rugs
Berber rugs dry in the sun on the patio balcony where there are views over the beach and countryside
‘This wall started off as a few pictures of Kai as a baby and just grew,’ says Emma. The Jeff Koons poster is from an exhibition in London. The chest is a Moroccan find
‘I like to have fun with design – a circular cutout shape in the thick stone wall is more interesting than a window.’ The rocker is an original Eames design (conranshop.co.uk) and Emma found the floor lamp at a Marrakech market
‘The living room is our haven; I wanted everything to be tonal and relaxing.’ The leather sofa is an original 1960s De Sede that Emma found in London’s Brick Lane (desede.ch). The fireplace creates a hub and heats the whole space. ‘Installing it was a mammoth task but well worth it’
Emma displays her beach finds throughout the house. ‘I love unusual shapes and textures. We found a seahorse and sand dollar in Costa Rica and I had them set in resin.’ The wooden shark was made by a local artist
Emma’s house is not your stereotypical Moroccan abode. ‘All my friends expected me to do the whole Arabian Nights thing with lanterns and colourful silks, but I wanted something unique,’ she says, ‘and to bring a hippie, London aesthetic to the coastal town of Essaouira.’
The building is more than 200 years old: ‘It was like buying a piece of history,’ says Emma. She remembers finding an ancient spell written on a crumpled piece of paper in one of the walls during the renovation. ‘It was a hex that a wife was trying to put on a new, more favoured spouse – it just goes to show you never know what is hidden in your walls.’
The house took nine months to renovate. ‘When we first moved in everything was crumbling – our feet would step straight through the floor.’ Emma stayed true to the original stonework and plaster where she could, painting and sanding the archways. ‘But most things had to change, from knocking through walls to taking up the flooring. It was a mammoth job.’
Emma’s eye for design is evident throughout the house; natural materials combine with chunky handmade textures that soften the concrete floors and bring a stylish yet relaxed atmosphere to the space. Everything relates to the landscape.
Emma’s bed sits on a concrete dais. The wall art is by street artist Dan Baldwin (danbaldwinart.com). The decorative horse head (just seen) was found in an Essaouiran flea market
Emma had the bath shipped over from the UK. ‘The curves suited the architecture of the house.’ For a similar ceramic bath, try Victorian Plumbing (victorianplumbing. co.uk). The art is from Marrakech
The bear, a gift for Kai, is by a Japanese artist. The beads are from a local market
Emma and her builders designed the shelves to display Kai’s toys, spanning aeroplanes to red London buses. ‘It is nice for Kai to have a part of London with him when he is here’
Kai used to carry a cuddly toy lobster around with him as a toddler. ‘Our beach trips would end with us rescuing lobsters from the fate of cooking pots.’
In Kai’s bedroom, a colourful whale painted for him by his father has pride of place above the bed. For a similar artwork, try Cult Furniture (cultfurniture.com). The bed is from Habitat (habitat.co.uk)
It was this passion and enthusiasm for the rich history of Morocco that inspired Emma to learn more about vintage Berber rugs, which are still made in the nearby Atlas Mountains. ‘I had already started up Castles in the Sand and would take clients on day trips into the heart of Marrakech to search for one-off, authentic pieces of Moroccan homeware for them to take home.’
It was through this process that Emma discovered how each rug was woven on family looms, some of them over many years. ‘I found that every rug told a unique story,’ says Emma. ‘My clients were fascinated and would cram as many into their suitcases as they could.’
Emma’s passion led to a business and she started up Beldi Rugs in London with co-founder Tamsin Flowers, a costumier. The two combined creative forces and now their collection stretches back decades: ‘We have vintage designs from the 1940s and 50s, some covered with tight-knit designs that would have taken about 100 years to make,’ says Emma.
Every piece is handcrafted and dyed organically, so no two rugs are the same. ‘The art of craftsmanship is dying out in favour of quick-fix, mass-produced pieces, and tales of the artisan are becoming lost along the way. We want to try to change that.’