In the realm of Moroccan zellige, Samir Mazer stands as a trailblazer, an artist who disrupts the established order and traditions. In 2003, he founded Ateliers Zelij, a company that is thriving  worldwide and creating  for the biggest names: Hermès, Cartier, Royal Mansour Casablanca, and more.We had the privilege of sitting down with him for an interview.

 “I should slow down a bit, but I can’t stop. I’m obsessed with  Moroccan zellige, its work, its material,” says Samir Mazer over the phone, between two exhibitions – including the prestigious Paris Déco Off-Home – and numerous creative pursuits in his Toulouse workshop. Though he’s not particularly fond of interviews, he takes the time to respond to Shoelifer’s questions, eventually finding it at least somewhat pleasant. With passion, he recounts his obsession, his purpose in life: Moroccan zellige.

 Originally from Tetouan – an Arab-Andalusian gem where Moroccan zellige is ubiquitous – born in 1966, Samir studied sculpture. He retained a fascination for the “poetry of materials” and history. “I liked to reinterpret the motifs of Moroccan zellige, to draw them, that’s how it started,” he explains. About twenty years ago, during an industrial design workshop in Toulouse, he met his lifelong partner: Delphine Laporte, an interior architect. Together, the duo developed Ateliers Zelij, a small company spanning France and Morocco with international reach. In Morocco, the brand is represented at Inspiration Design By, in Casablanca, founded by interior designer Yasmine Bennani.

Within Ateliers Zelij, Samir is the artist “always at the kiln”. Delphine, on the other hand, is the strategist managing the commercial and marketing aspects. Ateliers Zelij rewrites the rules  by offering sleek and ultra-contemporary creations and compositions of Moroccan zellige, without renouncing ancestral techniques and know-how. Samir’s mantra? “For a culture to remain alive, it must be reinvented.” Artistic pieces, walls, tables, fireplaces, showers, furniture, etc., Ateliers Zelij turns Moroccan zellige – highly coveted by architects and designers worldwide for years – into a must-have, both creative, playful, and, above all, functional.

Samir and Delphine, who work for extremely prestigious clients (Hermès, Cartier, or more recently the Royal Mansour in Casablanca), have written a true success story. In 2018, Ateliers Zelij redid the 12 shop windows of the Hermès headquarters on Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris. Samir and Delphine also participated in the renovation of Cartier boutiques in London, Seoul, Munich, New York, and Jeddah. Ateliers Zelij is referenced by Cartier in their “Métiers d’Art” list, which promotes exceptional know-how through integration into flagship projects. In addition to the exhibition in Paris, Samir Mazer was selected at the Révélations Paris Salon held at the Grand Palais éphémère in June 2023. He also collaborated in creating zellige floors for the Qatari pavilion, “Smart Qatar”, at EXPO DOHA 2023, currently underway.

You recently collaborated with the luxury hotel Royal Mansour Casablanca, which is expected to be opened  soon. How were you approached? 

 We were approached by an artistic curation agency. We have a research and development workshop in Toulouse, where we showcase pieces and prototypes for agencies, professionals, architects, and our potential partners and clients. Then, they are either impressed or not. They think of us  for projects, or not. And that’s how it happened with the Royal Mansour. I designed a 10-square-meter Moroccan zellige mural for the hotel’s restaurant, which is quite something. This artwork, located on the 23rd floor, is based on the theme of  flight. We first work on the design, the color palette according to the project’s color scheme, and then we move on to the workshop. There, we mainly seek colors that are original, and encourage accidents to make it a unique piece of art.

You often mention “searching for accidents.” What does that mean to you? 

 I want to break away from the beaten path. The work I do on Moroccan zellige has nothing to do with heritage and legacy. I maintain respect for ancestral craftsmanship, which has been around for over a thousand years, as well as the nobility in history. But what interests me in Moroccan zellige are neither the motifs nor the geometric patterns, but the material. Like the ancients before me, I wanted to bring something new to the technique. There’s no point in reproducing what has already been done, as brilliant as it is.  

That’s why I work a lot on nuances, shine, while offering simple, sleek geometry, straight lines. Ateliers Zelij couldn’t survive if there wasn’t an economic and commercial interest. To open up to international markets, we had to depart from the traditional path of Moroccan zellige and offer something more contemporary, with rather monochrome colors. And our idea  was successful, especially among industry professionals. 

 And what about those accidents? 

I don’t search for accidents; they are caused by the work. It’s in the process in the workshop that unforeseen things happen and prove to be interesting. That’s what we call serendipity. For me, it’s about feeling with the material. I bring something, and the material responds to me; it brings something else. Currently, for example, I’m working on the torn and chiseled material (enamel, texture) of Moroccan zellige, which gives floral motifs, like the Boujloud door in Fez. Or a form of calligraphy on mosque doors. I retrieve the torn part to make something more raw, less refined. I develop very abstract, very graphic patterns, and that’s actually what my latest collection, unveiled for Paris Déco Off, was based on.

 What is your latest major project?

A very large hotel in Sardinia: the Hotel Cala di Volpe. Two thousand square meters, ultra-creative motifs, all in an Italian context. This is the legendary hotel on the “Costa Esmeralda” in Sardinia, built by architect Jacques Couëlle for the Aga Khan. We collaborated with architect Bruno Moinard as part of the hotel’s complete renovation, which began in 2019. Each of the 55 bathrooms features a personalized zellige motif related to the place’s history.

You first studied sculpture; how did you get into Moroccan zellige? 

We have to go back to the unconscious. I was born in Tétouan, and on the way to school, Moroccan zellige was omnipresent. My journey has nothing to do with Moroccan zellige indeed, except for the fascination with the material and its history. It was when I met Delphine Laporte that we thought about how to develop this material.

You have a research and development workshop in Toulouse, but your zellige is made in Fes, isn’t it? 

In Toulouse, we think, we explore. We receive influencers, major agencies in our workshop. We regularly work with textile and haute couture publishing houses in particular. Projects then materialize in Fes, the cradle of Moroccan zellige.

Does the magic happen when you take your clients to the spiritual capital? 

Yes! People are fascinated, especially by the firing techniques. I think of Italians in particular, who are extremely moved every time. They feel a lot of emotions. You know, by exhibiting in Toulouse and through various trade shows, by producing in Fes, we contribute to the promotion of Moroccan zellige and heritage. In fact, we managed to integrate Moroccan zellige into the European Days of Crafts!

In a way, are you lobbying? 

It’s totally lobbying. We defend tooth and nail the technique and know-how of Moroccan zellige. I even think it’s a form of soft power.


You who are actively working to promote Moroccan zellige and more broadly Moroccan craftsmanship. Do you feel sufficiently recognized in Morocco? 

In the kingdom, craftsmanship is neither overused nor denigrated, but we are not far from it. There is a real interest in zellige internationally. And we can’t mention it without making a direct connection to Morocco. That being said, I have more recognition in Europe and abroad, so people are starting to pay more attention to me in Morocco. It wasn’t a strategy, but it happened that way.

What would you like to implement to further promote Moroccan zellige? 

I have a lot of things to propose! First, I would like my particular approach to inspire others, so they can advance their own pieces on this chessboard. Through design, craftsmanship can reinvent itself and open up new perspectives. But more concretely, right now I’m setting up an artist workshop/residency in the Asilah region (northern Morocco), in the countryside, overlooking the ocean. The idea is to organize conferences and workshops there with young national artists, foreign artists, Moroccan schools, or even architects.

Do you believe in the economic potential of Moroccan craftsmanship? 

In Morocco, there is tremendous potential, whether it’s zellige, leather, fabrics, or even folk songs. Youth should embrace this heritage and update it. The work I do on Moroccan zellige isn’t only successful  economically, but also drives the entire zellige industry in Fes. Today, there is no stock there. Everything produced is sold. 

When we attend trade shows in Europe, we see that Ateliers Zelij’s work has inspired many companies. There is even plagiarism in Italy, Spain, or Portugal despite the fact that our  models are registered in both France and Morocco. The kingdom has done everything it can, including creating labels, but it still struggles to defend itself. On our side, we were forced to hire a large law firm to defend our interests and maintain the exclusivity of our models. Of course, it cost a fortune, but it saved us. And in 2021, we obtained copyrights for my zellige creations — a significant advancement for the design sector applied to craft products.

As someone who disrupts the traditions of Moroccan zellige, have you had difficulties with the artisans in Fes who make your creations? 

 At first, I had problems selling them on  my work. The workshops in Fes are very tough. It’s almost tribal. If you’re not part of it, it’s almost impossible to enter. In my work, aesthetics are not the priority but rather the economy of material and gesture. In the end, the product price must be very reasonable, hence the straight lines. Ultimately, the artisans in Fes are very fond of my work because it is simpler and cheaper to make. They are quite curious, very interested to see what can be drawn from their art, and what we can bring to the composition and patterns. Today, there is no more reluctance on their part. Moreover, they understood that customers and institutions are looking for updated zellige. That’s the future.

Ultimately, weren’t you a pioneer in the “modernization” of Moroccan zellige? 

Without false modesty, I think so. Others have tried but failed. The French decorator André Paccard – who notably worked for the palaces of Moroccan sovereigns –  embarked on a monumental task with  Moroccan craftsmanship. He cataloged all the patterns of Moroccan zellige. And he experimented with his team of architects to break it out of its traditional framework. The results were not satisfactory.  With a somewhat Orientalist prism, he said: “This material has such a personality that it can only fit into traditional patterns.” In reality, I think this material can evolve, develop, adapt, and fit into all interiors. Besides, I’ve done it. We can make functional Moroccan zellige for kitchens or bathrooms, but also create pure artistic creations.

And how would you describe your identity after twenty years in France — and Toulouse accent to boot?  

Moroccan. Very Moroccan. The problem with Moroccans is that we are very Moroccan (laughs). Twenty years in France haven’t changed that. In the world of chess, it is said that it’s not the number of pieces that matters, but the position of the piece.

Picture (c) : Samir Mazer

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