The Naji family has its origins in the great city of Fez – the former capital of the Kingdom of Morocco and one of the country’s four “imperial cities.” For seven generations, the family has dedicated itself to preserving, protecting, and promoting the Moroccan Andalusian architectural heritage.
Owned and managed by the Naji family, the family business, known as Moresque Salr and Arabesque Inc. specialises in traditional Moroccan styles of interiors and furnishings. The Najis have gained a worldwide reputation of mastering a wide variety of activities such as carving on plaster, wood, and brass, and producing and installing Moroccan hand-cut tiles (Zellij). The family has been recognised internationally for its craftsmanship and authentic, timeless masterpieces.Moresque was established informally in 1928 by Maalem (Master artisan) Mhammed Telmsani Eissaoui in Fez starting out with only 10 employees. With no assets, workshops or capital except the skills he acquired from working with his father and his uncles, Mhammed was determined to carry on the family trade and to pass it on to his children.
In 1928, along with his oldest son Abdelhadi, a half dozen skilled artisans and a few apprentices, Mhammed started working on large projects, mainly the King’s palace in Fez and many residences of the elite of influential businessmen and politicians.
Abdelkader and Mohammed joined their father and oldest brother in 1940 to bring new blood and a fresh sprit to a business that now stood for a family tradition and a living art carried from one generation to another. In the mid- 1950’s, the Eissaoui Tlemassani family became a well-known brand and one of the most prominent families in Morocco to work in the handcraft industry. Acknowledging the Tlesmasai Eissaoui contribution in the field of craftsmanship and Moroccan interior architectural design and decoration, the Moroccan government named the street where the business was located after their craft ‘Derb El Gebbas’.
In 1960, Maalem Abdelkhader Tlemssani (the middle son of Mhammed Tlemssani and one of the most talented craftsmen in ornamental plaster in Fez) took over the family business then known only by the family name Tlemssani. At the time, all business was still conducted based solely onreputation and trust.
The new team consisted of the three Tlemssani brothers and their two nephews Mhammed and Mohammed Naji (children of Kenza Tlemssani, the only daughter of Mhammed Tlemssani), all of whom developed their skills at an early age. Abedelkader Tlemssani and his skillful team of twenty artisans accomplished sizeable projects, such as the refurbishment of the royal palace in Fez in 1964 and the renovation of the Grand Mosque in Paris in 1966 as well as several mosques in Algeria and Tunisia. In 1967, Mhammed Naji and Mhammed Telmsani, Aissawi’s grandson, took over the family business and formed a sole proprietorship called Naji Plaster. Leading 50 talented craftsmen and interior designers, Maalem Mhammed Naji undertook several projects that were recognised in Morocco, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
In the 1990’s, many young family members joined the family business. They were not only present in the managerial level but also in the design and execution stages of the business under their father‘s supervision. After gaining his academic degrees from Morocco, France, and the United Kingdom as an Ornamental Master Designer in 1992, Mohammed Naji, Jr. joined the family business. He is well-known for creating and developing new ornamental designs of carved stucco plaster. These new designs can be seen in some of the projects that he designed and supervised, such as the restoration of the Old Religious Schools Foundouk Nejjereen and Madrassa Bouanania in Fez. Following their brother Mohammed’s footsteps, Hicham, Reda and Adil Naji joined the business later. They currently work under the supervision of their Father Maalem Mhammed Naji.
Arabesque, the second Naji family company, was founded in 1996, and in 2000 its operations were incorporated in the U.S. and Morocco. The family dissolved Naji Plaster and Moresque Sarl was incorporated in Fez as a private limited liability company. In order for the family business to continue being competitive, a new management style was required to reach the next level:
After Adil Naji completed his degree in business management and administration in Washington, DC, he took over the newly formed companies and became the President of Arabesque, Inc. in the U.S., while his father assumed the same position in Moresque, Sarl in Morocco. Both companies are managed with a parallel vision intended to expand and strengthen the businesses, create a worldwide brand for the family.
Constantly seeking to preserve the Moroccan and Andalusian artistic tradition and its place in modern art and design, the Naji family established the Moresque Research Center (ARC) in 2001. The goal of the centre is to incorporate and develop the latest design information and technology in conjunction with Moroccan architectural decoration.
With headquarters in Morocco and several branches in the United States, Moresque and Arabesque have more than 200 senior craftsmen, interior designers, and project managers in different projects around the world. The family owns several workshops for the different stages of production and specialties where small teams of 10 or 15 handicraftsmen are supervised by one Maalem.
For seven generations, the Naji family has kept its promise to preserve Andalusian art and to represent it in its best form. Today, its worldwide projects vary from royal palaces, mosques, villas, hotels, museums, and Madrassas to restaurants, and exemplify the artistic expertise of the Naji family developed through the generations.
Interview with Adil Naji – President of Arabesque Inc, USA
Your family has been in the Arabesque business for nearly a century, how did the craft change over the years?
Until the late 1980’s, there were no critical changes in the Arabesque craft. Hand was the major driving force of creation, fabrication and final installation. For instance, Moroccan Zellij (hand cut tiles) is made out of clay that is baked in a traditional oven after it is glazed using a traditional method that has been used for generations. The tiles are then cut into different shapes and sizes by a master tile cutter using a wide hammer with sharp ends. All these phases of fabrication constitute the true authenticity of the craft; however, with the transfers of technology from a country to another, entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to enter this field and take advantage of the market. Now the Moresque craft has a different scale, ranging from authentic to synthetic.
The introduction of technology into Moresque craft is a double-edged sword. From one standpoint, it allows us to benefit from the use of computers, software and databases to create and design architectural ornaments using complicated patterns and design concepts with accuracy and efficiency. In the past, those methods took weeks and sometimes months to produce. Now technology is helping our craft reduce the time of creation and improve design processes while presenting clients with 3D or visual rendering of their final product. From another perspective, some businesses saw technology as a way to replace craftsmen and therefore introduced machines and advanced chemicals into their businesses. Today CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) is increasingly replacing wood and brass carver artisans in workshops in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and India and casting resin and silicon making rubber factories are opening from Morocco to China to dominate the carve architectural ornamental plaster market. At Arabesque and Moresque, we use technology to enhance and promote our craft, yet preserve and encourage the artistic traditions art, which have been carried from one generation to another.
What are the main projects that the Naji families have accomplished over the years in the business of traditional Moroccan interior designs and furnishers?
The Naji family has accomplished many projects in Morocco and all around the world spreading from Morocco to Brunei and from North America to Kazakhstan. Just in the past 10 years, the Naji family is proud to be an integral part in the making of the following projects:
1. The restoration of many historical monuments in Morocco dating back to the 14th century such as Madrassa Bou Inania, the Nejjarine Musuem and Madrassa Charateen. All are considered landmarks of Moroccan Andalusian Islamic architecture.
2. Mazagan Beach resorts In Al Jadida in Morocco, a truly magical place. The resort has been adorned with warm tiles on both walls and floors, exquisite brass light fixtures, and breathtaking furniture all fabricated and installed by Moresque.
3. Sahaba Mosque in Créteil, France, a unique mosque with sophisticated architectural design. Since its opening in December 2008, the mosque became a vital source of information and exploration about Islam and Islamic architecture.
4. Al Farouk Mosque the tallest building in Anaheim city less than a mile from Disneyland. The Mosque has a tall minaret, which tells California residents about the history of Islamic civilization.
5. Al Hambra Restaurant, Royal Villa Jumeirah, Theater at Souq Madinat Jumeirah and Al Qasr Hotel in Dubai all have a Moorish flavour of Arabesque and Moresque artistic touch and area a result of a partnership with Morawwah trading.
6. The Moroccan Court at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is considered the greatest achievement of the Naji family. The Met has contracted Arabesque to create a 14th century Maghribi Andalusian courtyard. The Moroccan Court will serve as a bridge for intercultural dialogue between East and West and a constant reminder of the true face of the history of Islamic civilisation, which was based on contribution, knowledge and advancement.
What are the goals and activities of the Moresque Research Center (ARC) that was established by Moresque in 2001?
In 2001, we established a center within our firm Moresque called (ARC). The primary goal and activities of ARC are to incorporate and develop the latest technology available in the market with Moroccan ornamental design and decoration to facilitate the communication between us and our clients and to ensure the continuity of the craft. In 2007, the ARC was restructured under the Moresque Media Lab, Sarl (M-LAB) to take on a bigger role. In addition to its primary goal, the Arabesque Research Center (ARC) is the driving force behind Arabesque and Moresque marketing strategies, engineering artistic projects solutions and management of Arabesque digital library of Islamic art and architecture.
Most of the Naji family members have been involved in the business throughout the generations. How do you explain this continuous interest of family members in every level of the business and do you believe that future generations will follow suit?
Business is an integral part of our family‘s daily life and a true image of our heritage and culture. We were brought up in an environment where most of my father‘s immediate family members were artisans working in the same trade, and at an early age, we developed the basic understanding of the craft of Moroccan Islamic ornamentals and the secret behind the traditional mathematic equation of geometry that are the floral designs. Every summer, all of my brothers and I had to spend at least a month in one of our workshops or at a jobsite to learn the craft in detail before we enjoyed the remaining summer vacation. We were encouraged by our father to study and choose our future by ourselves; however, I must admit that the environment we lived in was a major contributing factor in joining the family business. Moreover, we witnessed and felt the hardship that my father endured by running the business alone; and when my two brothers, Mhammed and Hicham Naji, joined the family business in the early 1990s, I realised that what we needed is to combine our artistic work with knowledge and research to maintain the continuity of our family business. Now all of us are involved in day-to-day business operations and decisions. We run our organisation as a global corporation but with respect for hierarchy. Sometimes the family side overtakes the business side and decision-making can be challenging at times.
We cannot guarantee that our future generations will have the same passion and desire to carry on our business as we did for generations, but we can help set up the foundation and the environment to make an easy transition for our children. To do that, over the past six years, the Naji family has invested one third of its profits in creating and building a showroom and Museum which contains 18 pavilions of different Islamic ornamental designs and architecture ranging from the golden ages of Andalusia to the 21st century of the Kingdom of Morocco.
We believe this is a family treasure and accomplishment to preserve for our future generations, and the only way for this to happen is if others join the family business.
What are the challenges and the opportunities that you see for Arabesque and Moresque in the future?
Keeping the Moroccan craft as a tradition and living art in Morocco as it passed on from family to family and generation to generation is one of the major challenges. Moroccan artisans are indispensable for the future of Moresque and Arabesque. Today, the business environment is driven by lowering cost, increasing profit, and reducing the production time. As a result, this threatens to misuse the technology in our field and may lead to a division between the craft and the business side.
The opportunities I see for Moresque and Arabesque are enormous and can be summarised as follows:
1. To become the source of reference and world leader in Islamic architectural design, decoration, ornamental installation and Moroccan Andalusian furniture fabrication.
2. To create a development linkage program with universities and technical institutions all around the major Eastern and Western cities to continue to promote Moroccan Andalusian Islamic art and architecture and adapt it as a concept of art and living.
3. To forge an alliance with craftsmen from within and outside the Muslim world to exchange techniques and expertise and create a 21st century craft and art based on beauty, peace, acceptance and respect.
4. To increase investments in technology and innovation to continue to create more designs and themes inspired from Islamic art and architecture to market globally.
Finally, we want to reinstate and clarify the image of Islam and its civilisation in the Western world through building monuments and dwellings that attest to the beauty of Islamic architecture and its peacefulness.
Tharawat Magazine, Issue 11, 2011