Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Moroccan-Inspired Front Steps

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is one amazing place, so it's no surprise that we made visiting there a priority when we went to Spain a few years ago. It is chock full of spectacular Moorish architectural embellishments and design that are visually spellbinding. The Moorish influences around southern Spain were so extraordinary, they inspired a visit to Morocco the following year. Needless to say, we were dazzled.

One of a million examples of plaster work at the Alhambra.

From the Alcazar in Seville, to a variety of stops in the underbelly of Fes, the remnants of old Moorish design are ever-present in this region. There are intricate tile designs known as zellij that are usually found on walls, but will also make up floors, ceilings, fountains, and more. Carved plaster designs grace archways and columns and walls. Pretty much any surface that a Moroccan craftsperson sees as under-served in the beauty department will get the full treatment. If there are unadorned surfaces anywhere, well, it must be because somebody just hasn't gotten around to it yet.

Floor somewhere in Morocco.

Doorway in a tight alley in Fes.

The Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

Meknes, a short train ride from Fes, also has a great deal of this type of artistry on display throughout the city.

A bonus shot from Meknes featuring the Moroccan triple threat: superb zellij tile work, plaster work, and calligraphy.

A wall in a madrasa in Meknes. Imagine showing me a pic of your trip to the mountains and trying to explain how a photograph doesn't capture the feeling of being there. That's how I feel here, that no photo can do these places justice. 

Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, of course is not going to be outdone in the presentation department, and went all out at the more modern Mausoleum of Mohammed V.

How about some more fountains?

El Glaoui Palace in Fes.

In a museum in Fes - I think Dar Batha, but I'm not entirely sure at the moment.

After reflecting on all that we'd seen on these two trips, we knew that we wanted to incorporate this kind of design into our home somehow. I even toyed with the idea of putting a fountain in our patio, but of course, our climate would not be kind to any intricate tile work or outdoor plumbing. But when our front steps needed redoing this summer, before the mail carrier fell through one of these days, I thought aha! Now's my chance. I sketched out a few ideas, showed them to my supervisor, and got down to work.

Staring at the doors of the Fes Royal Palace, ideas began to stir.

I knew right from the start though that there was no way I was doing tile work outdoors (or anywhere for that matter), and that I needed to curb my enthusiasm as I had no time (or skills) to recreate the Alhambra in my yard, so calm down right now if you think that's what this post is about.

I started searching out some ideas on the web, coming across a couple pics with designs that I could base my stair design on. It wasn't until preparing this post that I realized the photo I was using was of a door that I had taken a picture of. Looking back, I'm not sure how I ended up searching the web instead of my own photos. I think I must have been doing both, but anyways. Here's the pic that made me go, "Ah, that I can work with."

My photo of a door at the Alhambra.

A close up of another area to show how the aged tiles can look.

I actually started to draw the design out on the first riser before quickly realizing that a stencil would be much easier overall. I did this on some matte board, which is heavy enough to take some abuse and can be saved for future work.

The diamond pattern stencil was about a third of the length of the steps. I just sketched out the first third, moved the stencil, and repeated.

It's probably not worth noting that we went a good two weeks without front steps while I laboured over the design and rebuild. I tore the old steps out, then started to think about how I would do the design. Which is maybe a good thing as you don't want to spend a lot of your life creating something fabulous only to realize later that it doesn't fit into your stairs.

Once the design was sketched out on the primed riser boards, I got to work on the painting. I thought I had carefully chosen my paint colours, but apparently not, so I had to do some mixing to get my green colour the way I wanted it. 

Hard at work on the patio during those 35 degree days in July. The light of the sun looks like it's turning the patio blocks red hot. Supervisor took this pic from the comfort of her new day bed (completed during the hot days of June) which is wonderfully shaded on those hot, hot days.

With the design in place, it's just a matter of filling in the colours, and then deciding how far you want to take the trompe l'oeil effect to make realistic looking tiles.
On my first board, the top riser, I went all in. I was loving creating this look. When my supervisor got home from her other job, it was noted that we didn't want tiles that looked like they were ready to fall off the stairs today, so I had to tone it down going forward.
You can see in this pic how I mixed some blue in with my green to create a sort of translucent effect, giving the tiles a little more visual interest over a straight green.

I did this with the other colours too. I used a primer that was verging towards cream, but those bright, bold tile colours could not cover in one coat. I swished an uneven second and occasional third coat over top so that some white would still show through here and there.
My dog was an amazing cheerleader through all of this.

Here are a couple pics of the final risers, in place, today. One thing that is clear is that I'm going to have to spend a lot more time cleaning my steps than I ever did before. Every time it rains, the drops splatter dirt all over my nice stairs!
All the tiles look a little imperfectly "cut" so as not to look like wall paper, but emulate real hand-cut tile. The "grout" gets into all the little imperfections and nicks in the tiles, and little shadows are added here and there to give some depth.

I changed up the shades of the tiles a bit so that they are not all uniformly the exact same colour.

The supervisor had a wise idea to add some small red tiles into the mix.

Look at all that dirt on my new stairs!

Here are the completed stairs so you can see the entire design together. One thing I would do differently is make the white "tiles" that accompany the squares of blue, mustard, and green just a hair thinner. Maybe a millimetre or two. Not much, as a little would go a long way here.
Note that I was very careful to include the depth of the stair tread in the design layout. This way it appears that the tread is in front of a continuous wall of tile, which allows the tiles to visually flow from one riser to the next.
Overall, I'm really happy with how they turned out. And now when the supervisor gets home from work on a -35 day in January, she will be warmed by the memories of those wonderful spring days in Spain and Morocco.

Here are my photo galleries from Spain and Morocco.

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