In the height of summer the temperature in the Medina hits 40 degrees celsius before midday. It’s in the heart of Marrakech, the ancient part of the city protected by big orange clay walls. In the warm months sea air from the west whips across the desert and over the walls. It’s so hot that it’ll knock the wind right out of you.
In spite of the oppressive heat the Medina is an incredibly vibrant and busy place. Tourists filter in and out of the old city and wander through the labyrinth of tiny streets, alive with the sound of artisans at work and the smell of African scents – orange, cayenne, turmeric, and cinnamon – being carried around on the hot breeze. It’s a place where new and old ideas collide. Home to a vibrant expatriate community of Europeans who bring progressive ideas to a city famed for ancient artisan tradition.
“We’re leaving the studio now and going to lunch – it’s very very hot,” says Belgium-born Laurence Leenaert, down a scratchy telephone line. Laurence’s label and studio, LRNCE, is located in the industrial part of Marrakech, 15 minutes from the Medina. In the morning when it’s cooler she works on the ground floor, where she stores materials, paints and textiles. When she moved to Morocco after studying Fashion Design in Belgium, she was on her own. But now there’s a team of seven, busily making samples for the next LRNCE range that’ll feature a veritable array of local made textiles, carpets, pottery, kimonos and sandals.
“When I came to the dessert on holiday with my sister three years ago I knew that I should take my sewing machine and work with local materials. So I came back to Morocco a short time later and stayed for a month. I was very inspired and focused here. There were people working with wood and making sandals and working with leather. There was so much I wanted to do…Now it’s coming up three years since I moved here.”
Over the course of the past three years the demand for LRNCE has far outgrown supply, something that Laurence says she struggles with. Originally, she moved to Morocco to be close to the artisans that she works with and take her fledgling brand in a new direction. Even today, Laurence’s approach with LRNCE is all about nurturing the maker and making small runs of handmade items. In fact, she still draws and designs all of the pieces you see in the LRNCE ranges by hand – first creating samples and then collaborating with local artisans in the Medina to bring them to life.
Thanks to the wonderfully unique aesthetic she’s created online across Instagram and the online store, LRNCE is being talked about in design circles the world over. The LRNCE Instagram aesthetic heroes the bright blues and oranges and pinks of the Moroccan dessert, a perfect backdrop for her colourful abstract paintings and craft of local people who make rugs, sandals, and ceramic pieces.
“Photography is a big part of the brand,” says Laurence, from the studio. “I do it by myself because it keeps everything in the same space. It’s very important to use the same light and the same colours. It needs to be handmade and real. There’s not a machine who made this, but people’s hands.”
Taking a quick break from work in the studio, Laurence says that Instagram is responsible for driving her popularity around the world, opening her up to an international audience, the size of which she can’t quite keep up with. She drew crowds at this year’s Maison & Objet furniture fair in Paris, and as a result of that she has to be choosey in order to cope with demand. “We can only make what the artisans can make,” says Laurence. “We need not try to meet the demand. We just need to stay small and make our pieces unique. That’s our brand.”
What’s fascinating about the brand is that it can’t grow beyond its suppliers. Most of the pieces in the collection take weeks to produce. A rug that you see stocked on the shelves is the end of a careful process. “I take the painting with me and I’ll go to the people who colour the wool. We work on the colours together, then we choose the exact right colour,” she says. “Then I take it to the people who make the carpets. It takes four or five weeks to make the one carpet. It’s just one woman who works on one carpet.”
With so much demand from around the world and so few items in each collection, Laurence has to be in-credibly choosey about where the brand is stocked. Her way of combatting this is to pair exclusively with stores that she loves in every region. In England, it’s with The Conran Shop in Chelsea. In Marrakech it’s the cosmopolitan El Fenn Riad. In France, the Le Bon Marche in Paris. And in Australia, it’s Jardan.
For our Art House homewares collection, we’ve chosen a selection of LRNCE pieces to perfectly compliment the colours and the themes of the furniture. It includes a limited run of ceramic vases, plates, bowls, and cups made with terracotta. Each one is made locally and Laurence hand paints each piece herself in the studio in Marrakech. There’s also a collection of handwoven wool and braided cotton blankets and cushions, which feature Laurence’s abstract paintings in a bold array of colours.
All of the stock is very limited, and because every piece relies on Laurence – who is about to step out of the studio to escape the heat and get some lunch – it won’t come around again any time soon. “We really love what Jardan are doing, The brand is so sincere,” says Laurence, before rushing off. “So we know that our pieces are in the right hands.”