Day nine in Morocco, and still it's marvellous, but I'm just a tad over its tumultuous souks. I've had enough of the goat-scented rugs and pointy slippers that I suspect back home will just look like tawdry props from an Aladdin pantomime. I don't want to see another lamp unless a genie pops out of it and offers me a gin-and-tonic. Could we perhaps, I ask my driver-guide Houcein delicately, haul ourselves out of the Middle Ages and into the contemporary Marrakesh shopping scene?
Fortunately I'm touring with bespoke company By Prior Arrangement. Houcein merely nods like Jeeves, as if I'm the wisest man in the world; makes phone calls; rearranges the afternoon. As it happens, Italian-American interior designer Patrizia Bell-Banner, who moves between London and Marrakesh, is in town right now. She'll meet me over coffee at Kaowa opposite the gardens at Villa Majorelle, which I haven't visited yet. Anything else?
And so I abandon mint tea for a latte, over which Pat sounds like the woman I need. "Ethnic souvenirs are fine, but they do stick out," she agrees. "When you see them on the airport carousel back home you're already wondering if you should just leave them there. Who needs a rosewater sprinkler or a camel saddle anyway?"
No such items are found at Kaowa, a concept store that features contemporary Moroccan-made homeware, fashion and accessories. "It's great because there's a big range of price levels, you could spend just a few dollars or thousands. I really like the Chabi Chic pottery," says Pat. I hunt happily amid hand-blown glassware and buy a Chez Zoe bathrobe with a cheeky Moroccan hood and tassels.
Next door, Anitan Collection makes rugs in modern styles. Along the street are other browse-worthy shops selling leather and coffee-table books. Then Pat suggests we move on to suburban industrial zone Sidi Ghanem. "It started as a kind of cooperative between foreign and Moroccan artisans too constrained by the souk," she explains. "Now it's the place to be for design, and new cafes and eateries are opening up too."
There's nothing of old-town Marrakesh here: not a sack of spices, special-price carpet or pseudo-Berber soap dish to be seen. The streets are wide and dusty and lined by warehouses concealing many a surprise. Our first stop, Atelier Nihal, makes hand-woven fabrics for curtains and bedheads in trendy beige and grey shades that make the souk's reds and oranges seem brash. Next door, in interior-design shop Ali Met Floyd, Hicham el-Madi makes gorgeous walnut drinks cabinets that delicately incorporate traditional Moroccan wood-carving patterns. El-Madi has a liking for recycled materials: old carpet covering wing-back armchairs, classic metal fretwork rearranged into wall art. I add a deconstructed Picasso-esque teapot to my haul.
Such shops aren't just aimed at foreigners, says Pat. Morocco is booming and Marrakesh is the place where middle managers come for long weekends, or even buy holiday homes. "There's a big market for home decoration here as well. Sometimes I see a striking piece of furniture that seems too outrageous for Morocco, but a week later I find it gone to a Moroccan buyer."
Discovering hidden places is the benefit of an insider shopping tour. Like many of Sidi Ghanem's studios, Sissimorocco is accessed via a bare concrete staircase but explodes inside with colour. Owner-designer Sylvie Pissard uses traditional motifs in new ways: tote bags depicting Berber women in ceremonial jewellery, cushion covers imprinted with vintage postcard scenes. Up other warehouse stairs, Topolina is a kaleidoscope of textiles, including batik-like fabrics from Mauretania. It produces retro '50s fashions with an up-to-date twist that would gladden Katy Perry.
By day's end I'm happily tired and loaded down with sheets and pottery, soft leather bags for Christmas presents, my teapot and trinkets. I'm glad I've gone beyond the souks and seen another side to Marrakesh. Houcein-Jeeves shimmers into view and I load up my bags and head back to my hotel, happy as a squirrel in a nut grove.
Qatar Airways flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Doha (14.5 hours) and onwards to Marrakesh (7.5 hours). Phone 1300 340 600, see qatarairways.com
Australian-owned By Prior Arrangement specialises in handcrafted historical and cultural itineraries in Morocco that might focus on food, gardens, architecture or interiors as well as shopping. Phone 0415 637 985, see bypriorarrangement.com
The luxury Villa des Orangers sits right on the edge of old-town Marrakesh and offers an oasis of calm around several traditional ryad-style courtyards. Rooms from $420. Phone 1300 121 341, see relaischateaux.com
Brian Johnston was a guest of By Prior Arrangement.