Beyond The Bauhaus: Moroccan Design Stories, with Shape and Soul
What if we engaged in a short dérive in an effort to examine stories that have not been told in design history? Guy Debord coined the concept of the dérive as an unplanned journey through spaces, where participants pause their everyday life routine to follow unexpected paths. When I studied design, it was defined by European, colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal values. In this short essay, we will drift away from this expected path with five stories that are part of the history of design but did not make it to any design books yet.
Because Morocco is at the crossroads of several cultures, past and present, identities with their graphic expressions are complex, nuanced, multilayered, interweaving shape and soul—form and essence. In addition, growing up in Morocco meant growing up in a culture that rejected figuration. As a result, geometric and typographic expressions are omnipresent in the visual language. Although the complexity of meanings is challenged by the prevalence of oral history, it is my hope that sharing these pieces of the puzzle can invite all to complete a bigger picture.
The first Moroccan stamps appeared in 1891 when post offices were privatized and mostly owned by the Moroccan Jewish community. This 1896 stamp was distributed by a private post office between the cities of Tetouan and Chefchaouen. On it, we see typeset Latin characters while Arabic is handwritten, coming as an afterthought in terms of hierarchy and craft.
Moulay Abdelaziz IV was the Sultan of Morocco then, and stayed in power until 1908. The Star of David appears on stamps and coins of that time period—which may confirm the rumors that he wanted to marry the daughter of the head of the Jewish community, but also showcases the Jewish influence in Morocco. The Sultan worked closely with European allies, seeking strategic and political advice which certainly influenced the French and Spanish occupation that followed, from 1912 until 1956.
Manuscripts of the Quran are believed to be the written manifestation of the divine revelation transmitted in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. The text was codified and standardized in the year 651 by order Caliph Uthman ibn ‘Affan (reigned 644–56).
This nineteen-century calligraphic Quran is following the Maghrebi script and was created by the doctor and herbalist Muhammad Ibn Qasim Al-Qundusi. He was a Sufi who lived in Fez, Morocco. The Maghrebi script is a visual commonality of the region that originated around the eleventh century at al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, which is one of the oldest universities in the world and an intellectual center in the region. The script is believed to be a direct iteration of the Kufic. It is usually written with a sharp and pointed pen which produces a line of even thickness as well as angular and swirling characters. Variations of this script were found all across the Maghreb, Andalusia, and Sudan and were popular until the 18th century.
Al-Qundusi’s calligraphy and composition are extremely expressive, unlike traditional Maghrebi calligraphy and any other scripts, making this Quran a real treasure. It is additionally special as it was believed to have healing and protective powers. Al-Qundusi himself pursued calligraphy as a spiritual endeavor, and in many ways, in the Muslim world, scribes had a sacred status as they were reproducing the words of God. Commissioned by the royal family, this book was certainly not meant for everyday life use, but only for an occasional mystical purpose.
Al-Sharif al-Idrisi’s circular World Map was published in 1154, and is unquestionably unconventional by the standards of the colonial world maps we all use today.
First of all, it is oriented with the South at the top. Because many of the communities who first converted to Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries lived directly North of Mecca, they considered the South to be the correct direction of prayer. Therefore, early Islamic world maps were commonly oriented with the South at the top.
Another unusual, yet exciting decision in al-Idrisi’s map is that the African continent dominates it and Europe appears to be tiny. Finally, this map contains a visual metaphor taken directly from the Quran showing the earth being surrounded by the sea and further away by fire.
Plaza de Toros was built by the Spanish and inaugurated on August 27, 1950 with a bullfight. It was divided into 3 parts, one was located in Tetouan, and the others in two neighborhoods in Tangier commonly called Haoumat M’rabet and Haoumat Drawa. The last bullfight took place on October 4, 1970.
This ticket shows illustrations of bullfighting scenes signed by Saavedra. It is dated on Sunday May 12th, 1935 and is using psychedelic letterforms to write Plaza de Toros. Knowing that the psychedelic movement supposedly began in the mid 1960’s, this is quite intriguing. It may convey that experimenting with Art Nouveau aesthetics leading to the psychedelic movement might have happened a way before than what is officially documented.
Because of our colonial past, geopolitical hegemonies and social fractures, these 1980s publications by the Collectif Berbère Rabat are quite special, even revolutionary, simply for focusing on Amazigh history and cultures.
Amazigh languages, which are indigenous to North Africa, are written in Tifinagh. This writing system originates in Libya around 400 BC. It can also be found in Mali and Niger. In the Touareg mythology, its creation is attributed to a hero of civilization named Aniguran or Amamellen. In the 20th century, Tifinagh has been modified to its current form, which is called the neo-tifinagh.
Although it existed for the longest time, Tifinagh only became a recognized language by the constitution in Morocco in March 9th, 2011, after February 20th’s protests that rose along with the Arab Spring. After the end of the protectorate, the arabisation was established around the 1960s as an effort to decolonize the country. However, Amazigh became collateral damage. This policy not only hurt our people and the legitimacy of our culture, but also the collection of works that we could have had today. It is true that nomads disposed of various documents deemed unessential to their travels, which certainly must have contributed to our current thin archive, however there was also a political will behind it.
Designing better requires a radical collective effort that acknowledges and illuminates a constellation of histories. Unfortunately, my references are not always the most academic in this short dérive—which further illustrates the cultural genocide that happened in our discipline—but sometimes academic references act as gatekeepers. I believe that starting anywhere to uncover alternative narratives is a valid point of departure. As a result, I invite all designers, design educators, design students and other curious humans to:
Question the white, patriarchal, colonial and capitalist universal myth.
Engage in a dérive and share the unexpected stories that will come out of it.
Frame design works in the local multifaceted context.
Desacralize academic references if it helps to legitimize overlooked design stories.