A continent on the cusp

With talent and creativity matched by demand, Moroccan designer Hicham Lahlou is confident that this is Africa’s time to shine

Receiving the Insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of the French Republic from HE Jean-Francois Girault, France’s Ambassador to Morocco

You have collaborated with many major international brands on a broad range of projects. What do you think is the key to a successful partnership in the design industry? 

One of the most important aspects of working on a design with an established brand is to respect its identity. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several luxury brands that are highly prestigious and, in some cases, have a rich history of collaborations, such as the renowned French glass-making company, Daum Cristallerie, which had a 20-year partnership with Salvador Dalí, for example. When I teamed up with them to create my limited-edition collection of oryxes, I was acutely aware of the importance of recognising the point in Daum’s creative journey at which I’d become involved. I also give a lot of thought to how the product I’m designing will fit into the brand’s broader collections, which means plenty of research, as a starting point, and talking at length to the owners and artistic directors. Of course, my individual creativity is key, but ensuring I build on the brand’s solid foundations is essential.

One of the oryxes from the limited-edition collection, marking a collaboration with Daum Cristallerie

You are known for including cultural references to Africa, and your homeland of Morocco in particular, in your designs. How do you channel these ideas into your creations, while also balancing them with contemporary design?

It’s true that in the 26 years I’ve been designing since graduating from Académie Charpentier in Paris, I often find myself thinking about my Moroccan and African heritage, and how to reinterpret my roots in my work. At the same time, I’ve always been determined not to ‘copy paste’ generic motifs from the region, such as geometric shapes – I feel the inspirational potential is much greater and my heritage more deserving! For example, a lot of people are unaware that there are 22 Arab countries in the world, most of which are located in Africa, or that Morocco’s rich history has given it a diverse population and fascinating multi-fold identity. When I’m thinking of ways to integrate my roots into my work, I’m always sensitive to these facts and make it a point in the creation process to connect with the cultural elements that are so important to me and the region. One example which I’m especially proud of is my recent collaboration with Haviland, the prestigious French porcelain manufacturer. I wanted to come up with a concept that paid tribute to my heritage, but also aligned with the Haviland brand. The Morocco Collection, a range of superimposed decorative cups, complete with orange-blossom-scented candles, which evoke the sumptuous fragrances of the valleys of my homeland, were the result. Their simple, yet classic and refined appearance is exactly what I wanted to achieve and I love the way they dovetail with the rest of the roader Palmeraie (Palm Grove) collection, inspired by Marrakesh.

Piece from the Morocco Collection, marking a collaboration with Haviland

The ‘Made in Morocco’ label came into its own during the Covid-19 pandemic, creating functional, life-saving equipment. What can the country do to build on this success?

I am a firm believer that design has be more than creativity – it has to be strategy-driven. IBM’s one-time chief executive Thomas J. Watson Jr famously said “Good design is good business”, and I believe these words are very true. My advice to designers starting out is to ask themselves a series of questions before beginning a project, such as what is the design for, and where is it going, in terms of destination and positioning. It’s so important to integrate this thinking into the process from the outset. I made this a key focus, for example, when designing the scenography of various major spaces of the high-speed new train stations for Morocco. It was pivotal that the components, from counters and screens to furniture, were fully functional and met the necessary criteria for usage, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Today, more brands than ever before are factoring environmental and social governance (ESG) and sustainability principles into their policies as well, and want their products to reflect this. We have some catching up to do in Africa when it comes to investing in design strategy, but we’re making progress and I’m excited to be playing a key part in that process. Current projects include opening the first Africa Design Academy in Rabat, Morocco, which we hope to do in September 2022.

On that subject, how do you see the future of African design unfolding?

I’m really optimistic about the potential that the region holds for design and am delighted that my position in the industry has enabled me to be involved on so many levels in supporting and promoting the rising stars of design across the continent. Setting up the Young African Platform, launching the Africa Design Awards and Days at the New York Forum Africa, and participating in other high-profile international events and forums have all helped me in my bid to take the regional industry forward. There are so many exciting developments under way in design here, which makes sharing my knowledge and giving up and coming talent a platform among my priorities. I genuinely believe that this is Africa’s time when it comes to design, since the talent and creativity are matched by demand. With Africa’s potential and investor interest soaring, good designers can make a major contribution to economic growth.

The various major spaces designed for Morocco’s high-speed new train stations

Your creations are regularly exhibited as examples of innovation and you are the recipient of several awards. What do you regard as the standout moments or milestones on your creative journey?

There are so many to mention and I still feel humbled when reflecting on the highlights of my career to date. Being a guest member of the VIP jury on the Star of Science television series in Qatar was a fantastic experience, as was being awarded the Insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of the French Republic in 2016, especially since I was elected board member and regional advisor for the World Design Organization soon after. I’ve also felt honoured to work with some of the best-known designers in the Arab world, such as Nada Debs and the late Zaha Hadid, who are testament to the talent in the region and have been incredibly inspirational. Knowing my work has featured in prestigious exhibition spaces, such as the Vitra Design Museum and the Guggenheim Bilbao, also fills me with pride. I’m particularly proud of the fact that my Narghilé (hookah) Disco Pipe, which is manufactured and distributed by the French company Airdiem, has been inducted into the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection of Islamic art. I’m thrilled with what I’ve been able to achieve to date across the fields of interior and product design, commercial architecture, brand identity and graphic design, among others. But being able to act as a design ambassador and help nurture new talent ranks high up there as a career highlight. 

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