Zellige

Roumouz is a weekly series that analyses the underlying themes and spatial differences in popular motifs in modern Middle Eastern art.

There are patterns in every aspect of our lives that allow us to understand our behaviours and those of other peoples, our histories, ancestries, and reactions to current times. Likewise, patterns in interior design, objects, or walls provide insights on cultural phenomenons, traditions, and more, and it is specifically perceptible in our region through zelliges.

Zellige, a mosaic crafted from hand-chiselled tiles, has been a staple of architectural landscapes and interiors across the MENA region and the Iberian Peninsula since the 14th century. From walls and domes to minarets and fountains, its presence evolved beyond historical and religious monuments to grace modern structures, luxury hotels, and even experimental architectural or artistic realms.

What stories do these geometric forms truly tell about the spaces we inhabit? They form certain patterns and shapes, and propose different iterations across the region. Different colours and different symbols signal different things in zelliges. Or do they, really? 

Zellige, crafted by the hands of the mâalem, brings forth a multitude of geometric shapes and epigraphic ornaments. Its designs, whether floral motifs or interlacing geometries, do not narrate tales, specific traditions nor mimic nature; instead, they reflect precise mathematical calculations. Piece after piece, and tile after tile, zellige establishes an order, a unity, a repetition that brings a sense of tranquillity. Zellige patterns constitute the principle of unity in multiplicity – al-wahda-fil-kuthra

Source: Cerames

Zellige in Contemporary Culture

A telling anecdote unfolds in the ongoing row between Algeria and Morocco over an Adidas jersey design. Algeria’s celebration of zellige in their football teams’ jersey designs has ignited a controversy with Morocco. The Ministry of Culture accused Adidas of appropriating Moroccan culture, leading to the official patenting of zellige of Fez by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. A legal warning was issued by a lawyer on behalf of the Ministry alleging cultural appropriation, but Adidas maintained the design was inspired by Algeria’s El Mechouar Palace. This dispute adds to the ongoing tensions between Algeria and Morocco since the severing of diplomatic ties last year; showing the intrinsically political trait of design. 

In the realm of critical design theory, where the examination of cultural significance and the impact of design on society takes centre stage, exploring the intersection of zellige and wabi-sabi proves to be extremely relevant. Zellige’s philosophy parallels the ever so popular wabi-sabi concept in interior design. The intricate mosaic style originating from the MENA region and wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic philosophy, both celebrate imperfection, even if they may seem culturally distinct.

The imperfections inherent in the handmade tiles introduce a human touch, reminding us that perfection is an ideal that is not worth pursuing in contemporary design and in our interiors. Wabi-sabi finds beauty in the patina of time; it encourages an appreciation for the natural cycle of growth and decay, for the so-called wear and tear, that is visible in zellige’s grout lines. When observing zellige or discussing wabi-sabi, there is a need to acknowledge that designs and our interiors evolve with their surroundings and users; our touch, imprints, and care affect the materials.

When thinking critically about design and patterns, this embrace of imperfection is a rebellion against mass-produced aesthetics. Both zellige and wabi-sabi also challenge the commercialization of aesthetics without an understanding of their cultural significance. In a context where trends and fashions change ever-so-rapidly, wabi-sabi encourages a mindset shift towards appreciating longevity and enduring beauty.
Similarly, zellige’s intentional irregularities become a deliberate design choice, highlighting the unique compositions and options available to us – for example, patterns are infinite, colour combinations and arrangements follow course to the mâalem’s imagination, his own affinity to zellige types, and his personal ties to the craft. 

Source: Michel Ocelot

Featured in countless design publications highlighting its popularity, zellige tiles are well alive in spaces as diverse as luxury villas in Jordan to getaways in Spain, as well as in critical debates on interiors, slow living, mass production and cultural appropriation.

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion
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