Riad N° 9 Fez French TV Feature
Riad Numero 9 Fez American TV Feature
Stephen di Renza discovers it takes a village - and a convoy of donkeys - to restore a house in the historic medina of Fez
Text by Ian Phillips - Photography by Henri Bourne
It all started with a trip to the dentist. In 1999, Stephen Di Renza had surgery in Paris and couldn't eat for a month. “After a couple of weeks”, he recalls, “I just wanted to go somewhere to read and be quiet”. He heard of a new guesthouse that had just opened at the heart of Fez in northern Morocco and decided to give it a try. He immediately fell in love with the city.
“What is great is the tranquillity and the feeling that it really hasn't been touched by time”, he enthuses. “There's a great authenticity to it. It's a medieval site and if you take away the satellite dishes, it doesn't feel like a lot's changed. There have been attempts to accommodate automobiles in the medina, but they never worked”. His words echo those of the 20th-century travel writers, Jerome and Jean Tharaud, who viewed Fez as “the site of a miracle, of the suppression of the passage of time”.
As you wander through the old city's almost bewildering labyrinth of tiny alleyways, that's still very much the case. Donkeys are laden down with paving stones or Coke tins, the gutters of the food market are replete with fresh chicken blood and almost everywhere you look, there are craftsmen in tiny workshops using age-old, Medieval techniques… tanners, blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers.
During his very first visit, Paris-based Di Renza determined to buy himself a “little retreat” at the heart of the medina. What he came across was a three-story structure originally built as a guesthouse in the late 18th century by a rich merchant. Although not large by Moroccan standards (the plot measures 1400 square feet), it is both vertiginously high and highly ornate. “He probably housed his clients there”, explains Di Renza. “So, it was meant to impress and has all the details—a fountain, very fine plaster carving, beautiful painted ceilings—that one would find in a larger house”.
The previous owner was an ailing, elderly man with two wives. “He wanted to sell the house because he was afraid of inheritance problems”, recounts Di Renza. He did so just in time. “I came, I signed the papers and he died two days later”. Part of the transaction consisted of handing over the deeds of the house, which date from 1840. Di Renza had them framed and placed in the entrance hall and on one wall of the master bedroom.
Before that, however, he had to carry out a certain amount of restoration work. Over the years, little respect had been paid to the house's architectural heritage. There was a huge TV set in the fountain, the marble courtyard had been covered with granito in the Seventies and the kitchen was quite simply “a disaster”. “The humidity had gotten under it and it was rotting”, recalls Di Renza. Then, there was the paint that had been splashed all over the place. All the wrought iron work was silver and the woodwork a brilliant turquoise. To strip it all, Di Renza hired up to 75 people, who worked away with Q-tips. He even flew over a painter restorer friend, who works for the Louvre, to teach them the correct technique.
He had more difficulty finding someone to clean all the tile work. “All the locals just said, ‘Let's rip it out and replace it'”. Keen to retain as much original detailing as possible, Di Renza set to work himself with a tiny metal brush and paint remover. He also devised the telescopic sliding glass roof to protect the open courtyard in the event of rain and reworked some of the ceiling heights so that both the upper two stories could comfortably accommodate bedrooms. On the second floor, a meter of rubble was removed from one of the wings. “That was one of the most expensive things because it had to be taken away by donkey”, he asserts. “One meter of rubble meant hundreds and hundreds of donkeys!
It must all have seemed like a hundred of miles away from his upbringing too. Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Di Renza originally studied film at NYU before taking a job as a fashion stylist for Interview magazine in the early Eighties. Among other things, he has since spent three years in Hanoi developing products for Habitat, worked as a fashion director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman and as design director for Dunhill. Since quitting the latter in mid-2005, he has been busy initiating a book project on the history of men's fashion.
Traces of his various past lives can be found throughout the house in Fez. The courtyard table was made by sawing the top off a Dunhill display unit and a wall in one of the two guest bedrooms is decorated with in-store visuals developed with Japanese photographer Keiichi Tahara. In the sitting room are celadon pottery prototypes conceived for Habitat. There are also a number of other Asian artifacts—the Vietnamese desk in the office-cum-dining room, the rosewood ceiling fan in the master bathroom and the early 20th-century Chinese temple banner in the master bedroom. Mixed in with these are pieces of vintage English and French furniture, as well as a few Moroccan touches, such as the pop-like portrait of a young Hassan II in the kitchen and the traditional shepherd's garments used to cover the banquettes on the roof terrace.
One of Di Renza's favorite decorating tricks is recycling old objects and giving them new functions. Here, he turned an old jug into a light fixture for the fountain, a vintage doctor's cabinet into a set of kitchen drawers and a coal bin into a medicine cabinet. His antique hunting also resulted in some really cool finds. Some of the best came from what he calls his “Sunday souks”—local country markets. “They are my favorite thing in the world to do”, he insists. “When I find things, I'm tickled to death”. One time, he snapped up an original Eero Saarinen Tulip dining table for a paltry five dollars!
When in Fez, his weekly trip to the souks constitutes one of his rare outings. Mostly, he's to be found whiling his time away on the roof terrace. “In my head, it's always been a place to come to read, write and relax”, he says. He also loves for his friends to borrow the house and has lent it twice as a wedding gift. Others who fancy a taste of life in the medina can rent it through Travel Intelligence (www.travelintelligence.net). Perhaps they will come away with the same impression as writer Paul Bowles. In a 1984 text, he described the typical prosperous Fez dwelling as “a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world”. For Di Renza, his house is exactly that!
privo di cappuccio. Molte portano scarpe eleganti e amano truccarsi. Gli uomini indossano djellaba e babbucce, spesso di un giallo acceso. A differenza di Marrakech, con i suoi palazzi dai colori sgargianti, Fez è piuttosto monocromatica. Solo i tetti verdi delle moschee interrompono la monotonia del paesaggio grigio e marrone. Se ne contano più di 200, oltre a 60 fontane, 250 hammam e 800 panetterie. (segue)
DORMIRE A FEZ
Tra i riad più originali della Medina, ci sono il Dar 47 (47 Haffarine; da 120 €), e il Riad Numero 9 con interni di Stephen di Renza e Bruno Ussel. Solo la cucina (dove ci si prepara la colazione da soli) varrebbe una sosta (9 Derb El Masid; da 100 €). Minimal e con mobili d’epoca, il riad Dar Seffarine (14 Derb Sbaa Louyate, tel. +212 671113528; 70 €). Ha appena inaugurato con spa, hammam e piscina e tre junior suite il Riad Fès (5 Derb Ben Slimane Zerbatana, tel. +212 535 947610; da 153 €). Nuovissimo e lussuoso anche il Palais Amani (12 Derb El Miter, tel. +212 535 633209; da 203 €). MANGIARE A FEZ Il locale più interessante del momento è il Café Clock, gestito nella Medina dall’inglese Mike Richardson. Si trova di tutto, dai pancake alla ricotta al famoso hamburger di cammello. Sul sito sono elencati gli appuntamenti culturali in città (7 Derb el Magana, Talaa Kbira, tel. +212 535 637855; 30 €).
Tra i ristoranti e lounge bar, interessanti il Mezzanine (17 Kasbat Chams; tel. +212 535 638668; 60 €) e la Maison Blanche per la moderna cucina mediterranea di Thierry Enderlin (12 Rue Ahmed Chaouki, tel. +212 535 622727; 60 € per tre portate e vino). I FESTIVAL A FEZ
Assolutamente da vedere: Festival de la Culture Soufie ad aprile e Musiques Sacrée du Monde a giugno.
1. HOW DOES YOUR ORIENTAL HERITAGE INSPIRE YOUR WORK? HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THIS IN YOUR DESIGN?
2. IS THERE A STRONG CONTEMPORARY CURRENT IN THE MIDDLE EASTERN DESIGN LANDSCAPE?
3. WHICH ORIENTAL PERSONALITY HAS MARKED YOUR DESIGN PHILOSOPHY? AND WHY?
4. WHEN TRAVELING TO THE MIDDLE EAST, WHAT FAVORITE TREASURES DO YOU BRING BACK WITH YOU?
Stylist for Interview Magazine, Fashion Director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, ultra-sophisticated Artistic Director for Alfred Dunhill in Paris, Philadelphia-born Stephen di Renza exudes all that is chic about a Parisian. He has now relocated to Fez where, in 2012, he opened restaurant Numéro 7 and a boutique guest house Riad N°9 with his French partner, chef Bruno Ussel. Their oasis is the perfect blend of contemporary Oriental style with traditional craftsmanship. A dream come true for any visitor…
1. The Arab world gave us geometry which is an archetypal form of design itself. To quote Plato “… geometry is the knowledge of the eternally existent.” The sense of geometrical proportion is everywhere in the Islamic applied arts. Personally, I find inspiration by stripping off or abstracting layers of embellishment and taking designs down to their geometric base.
2. I believe there is and actually always has been. It’s just that now we’re seeing designers using the geometric principles of ordered space that underline all Islamic art and rather than adding ornament are doing just the opposite. What many people are calling “Modern Moroccan” is exactly this rather than any kind of “fusion” with western styles.
4. I have an artisanal perfumer in Fez who has an incredible range of natural essences. I tend to bring orange and violet essential oils as gifts for my ladies friends and pieces of musk which I put in my closets to perfume linen and clothing