My Folklore: Hotelier Meryanne Loum-Martin on the Magic of Marrakech
For decades, Marrakech has attracted many of the world’s renowned creatives and aesthetes to its urban oasis including the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, John Legend and, famously, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
It’s another French transplant that welcomes us into the Jnane Tamsna, the first hotel owned and operated by a Black woman in Marrakech. Meryanne Loum-Martin is a celebrated interior designer, hotelier and author who has called the Red City home for more than 25 years. When she first arrived in Marrakech in the 1980s, it was “almost biblical”, she says, with land occupied mainly by sheep, their shepherds and alfalfa plants. Today, she has transformed her corner of the land, her home, into Jnane Tamsna, a stylish boutique hotel nestled within the verdant landscape of the Palmeraie, situated just outside of Marrakech at the northern edge. Loum-Martin has truly immersed herself and her family — she is married to Dr Gary Martin, an ethnobotanist and founder of the Global Diversity Foundation, and they have a son and a daughter — into the Palmeraie and does not see herself living anywhere else.
This is a far cry from the lawyer who lived all over the world – London, Paris, Moscow, New York – and lived the intense, fast-paced city life. Born in Cote d’Ivoire to a Senegalese father and West Indian mother, Loum-Martin always wanted to design and build houses. She spent her early childhood in Ghana, London and Moscow before settling in Paris. She was admitted to college at age 16 and went to architecture school. She excelled in all her creative and artistic subjects, but to progress to the third year, she had to pass minor credits in chemistry and physics – not her strong suit – which prevented her from continuing her architecture studies. Instead, she went to law school and became a lawyer and a member of the Paris Bar.
She recalls growing up “in a white world, often being the only Black person”. Part of what attracted her to Marrakech was the richness of its culture and the diversity of its influences from Arab and French Art Deco to Berber customs, a first impression that remains vivid even today. When she arrived in the city in search for a place to build a family holiday home for her parents, she immediately fell in love with the place.
Years later, she would build and design her own hotel, fulfilling the dream she had since she was seven years old. Jnane Tamsna is a sprawling 24-room abode comprising five houses, swimming pools, a tennis court and a nine-acre garden cultivated by Dr Martin. Built to Loum-Martin’s exacting standards, it’s a blend of Morocco’s distinct architecture and history, and the designer’s eye for rustic, idiosyncratic details. It has become an enclave for discerning travelers who seeking a refreshing escape from everyday life. Loum-Martin has written the book on living fabulously in Marrakech, literally; Inside Marrakesh: Enchanting Homes and Gardens, published last year, takes readers inside some of the city’s most extraordinary private residences and enchanting gardens.
Loum-Martin surrounds herself with visionaries and creatives, including her daughter, Thaïs Martin, a filmmaker who is the co-founder of Marrakech Short Film Festival, the first women-led organization of its kind in Morocco, which aims to bridge Marrakech to the outside world by highlighting Moroccan and foreign talents in the filmmaking industry.
In this episode of ‘My Folklore’, we sat down with Meryanne Loum-Martin and her daughter Thaïs in Marrakech to talk about design, the richness of Moroccan culture and her dream dinner party. Watch the video below and on YouTube, and read excerpts from our interview below.
When did you first visit Palmeraie? What was it that attracted you? What do you remember most from that first visit?
In the mid-1980s, my parents wanted to have a holiday house. I told them that Marrakech is the place that has it all, everything we’re looking for. I came straight to the Palmeraie because it was the best place. I believe it’s still the best place to have a house because you have space. I came in December 1985 and it was very green, almost biblical; you had sheep and shepherds and alfalfa fields and beautiful date palm trees. It was a real paradise and I immediately fell in love with it.
You lived in big cities such as London and Paris before the move to Marrakech. How was the transition from city life to country life?
Marrakech is a magnet and it attracts fabulous people from around the world. Before, I lived in New York and I had a very intense social life, then I come here and I meet even more people. I’ve had a fantastically interesting social life here in Marrakech. Would I go back to my big city life? No! This is more interesting because I’m connected to the whole world, out of a paradise! When I walk out of my house to the office, I just cross a garden, so it’s really wonderful to be living in Marrakech.
What was the inspiration behind Jnane Tamsna?
Where else in the world can you have such a strong local style, and you can mix it with your own cultural heritage, and the result has its own sense of space? What I wanted to do with the architecture here was to keep the structure of the “riad”, which means “courtyard”, but for it to be totally open to nature. I had a map drawn of the existing trees and then I slid the building between the existing palm trees. So, nature has decided everything here.
What does Jnane Tamsna mean?
I had this amazing old house that I restored in 1999 and it was called Riad Tamsna. My parents’ house was called Dar Tamsna and everything that was there, you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was all either designed by me or curated by me; everything was unique and really special. And then I decided that I should do a boutique hotel and the idea was to call it “Jnane” — because “jana” means paradise [in Arabic] — and Tamsna because everything I had already done was called Tamsna.
Did you always want to be an interior designer and open your own hotel?
Since I was seven years old I wanted to be an architect; it was really an obsession. So it was a big shock for me to know that I would not be able to fulfil my dream and Morocco gave me the opportunity to build and design. I had no idea that in my life I would one day become a hotelier. I decided to turn the house into a business and to my amazing surprise it went on to become one of the most famous houses in Morocco.
When designing the rooms, spaces and grounds at Jnane Tamsna, where did your inspiration come from? What are your favorite design touches?
It was a mix of a very edited approach to Moroccan style mixed with Art Deco. Art Deco is very much part of the cultural heritage of Morocco. It was also interesting for me because being from such a diverse background, Marrakech is at the crossroads of so many influences that I feel very much at ease here.
I like everything in this hotel, I have to say. Maybe it’s because I designed it myself but there’s nothing that I don’t like here. I’m responsible for everything so whether other people like it or not — and I hope they do like it — but it’s like I have many, many babies, each room is my baby.
Describe your perfect dinner party: who would you invite? What food would you serve? What would you have for entertainment?
I love being surrounded by writers. My ideal dinner party would be some jazz musicians having a jam session, having conversations with creatives and writers and people who are into conservation. I’m creative with food too. We just created a fresh fig and goat cheese tart, we’d have gazpacho from the garden — my husband grows vegetables and everything is organic here — and then I would probably have a Senegalese dish, something called yassa, which is a chicken baste that I love.
When I entertain, I like mixing food that reflect who you are. And because there’s Moroccan food everywhere, I like to offer something different. For dessert, I love mango sorbet with fresh ginger, and maybe a French pastry. And good wine! Wine is very important and Morocco produces delicious wines. We also do really creative cocktails because we infuse our own alcohol with organic herbs.
How would you describe your personal style? Has living in Marrakech or working in interior design influenced your look?
My style is about mixing, being creative so there could be pieces that cost more with things that cost nothing. But I think I’m just as creative in my personal style as I am with interiors.
Creative producer: Raven Irabor @ravencherisse
Local producer: Marie Juncker @mariejuncker
Photography/creative direction: Mous Lamrabat @mouslamrabat
Videographer/editor: Anas Ouaadidy @dy_anas
Stylist: Lisa Lapauw @lisalapauw
Hair and makeup: Sanne Schoofs @sanneschoofs