When Frédéric Méchiche first traveled to Marrakech, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the French designer fell in love with the sleepy vibe that reminded him of old European villages little changed by time. Back then, few people lived in the ancient walled medina, which was all but deserted at night after the merchants closed up shop. But the Algerian-born Méchiche, who has made a career of creating luxe, layered interiors for blue-chip art collectors and other savvy clients from Paris to New York, didn’t return to the Moroccan city until four years ago, accompanying a friend who had never been there. “On the plane I was telling him that the airport was small and we would see camels and monkeys along the road,” the decorator recalls. “Then we landed, and the airport was huge, like out of a James Bond movie, and there were houses and highways everywhere. I didn’t recognize anything.”
A different sort of shock greeted Méchiche upon visiting the medina. Despite the fact that more people now lived within its walls, the earth-tone district was virtually unchanged. Seeing it flooded him with memories of his Algerian childhood. “I recognized the blue sky, the perfume of roses and spices, the special colors and atmosphere,” he says. “I knew then I had to have a house here to spend winters. I wanted to have a nice life.”
Méchiche soon returned to Marrakech, this time to look at real estate. In the heart of the medina he found a riad dating from at least the 18th century that had potential. And problems. Originally owned by a prominent Marrakech family, the property had a charming courtyard with ficuses and rubber trees and vines of lush red bougainvillea that snaked up the walls and spilled onto the rooftop. The interiors retained ancient earthen walls, intricately carved plasterwork, and vivid ceramic tiles. The kitchen was spacious, and the second floor consisted of what Moroccans call a douiria, or reception apartment, which Méchiche envisioned as his private quarters. But there were also unfortunate remnants from the riad’s recent life as a guesthouse, including a hot tub in the courtyard and “fake Moroccan furnishings like you find at Pier 1,” says the designer. But he bought the place on the spot. “It was a coup de foudre,” he recalls—love at first sight.