Bill Willis in front of the future Getty residence, Palais de la Zahia, in 1967.
The Getty residence was his first commission in Marrakech
For four decades, the architect and decorator Bill Willis was the unlikely point man in Morocco for voluptuous houses redolent of concubines and the woozy, opium-fogged dreamscapes of 19th-century Western painters like Georges Clairin. Nothing in his background — Willis was from Memphis and spoke French with an unforgettable Delta drawl — suggested that one day he would be reviving zellij mosaic work or polishing rendered walls with river stones and waxing them with savon noir to an alabaster sheen.
Having jump-started high-end Islamic architecture and rescued those Eastern design elements on the verge of extinction, Willis prompted a hundred style books (of which even he would probably agree 97 are redundant). An Orientalist in the tradition of Clairin, he appropriated an aesthetic language, then reinvented it. If anyone in the West beyond decorative arts scholars knows what zellij is today, Willis, who died last year at 72, gets the laurels. Gettys, Rothschilds and Agnellis queued up for his services, employing him to share his fastidious knowledge of keyhole arches, honeycomb vaulting and Moorish garden pavilions.
“Everything at Dar es Saada is laid out with an order in which I can safely deposit my disorder,” Yves Saint Laurent said of the first Marrakesh house that Willis designed for him and Pierre Bergé. Willis’s oeuvre made an important contribution not merely to the lush life of North Africa, says Bergé, but also to the Moroccan arts: “It was Bill who coined the design vocabulary of today’s Morocco. Even if he was from the South and drank too much bourbon, he was not American. He struck America from his life.”
When Bergé and Saint Laurent hired Willis a second time, it was to collaborate with the decorator Jacques Grange on Villa Oasis, built by the painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Grange is fond of saying that his late colleague had so many disciples, “we can speak today of the school of Bill Willis.”
Paleys and Rockefellers braved the dust and chickens of the Marrakesh medina to visit Willis in his thickly layered lair, once the harem of a minor 18th-century royal. American interior designers, from David Easton to Stephen Sills, also made the trip — part pilgrimage, part primer. I met Willis in his adopted city in 1986 during a marathon of celebrations for King Hassan II’s Silver Jubilee. “You think the royal palaces are grand,” Mary McFadden, traveling with the society decorators Chessy Raynor and Mica Ertegun, could be heard to crow. “There’s a rotunda at Marie-Hélène’s as big as a cathedral.” She was referring to Baroness Guy de Rothschild, for whom Willis built a villa from scratch. He was also meant to furnish it. But as he was infamous for never making an appearance before 2 p.m., artist and patron fell out. Darling Bill was replaced by Geoffrey Bennison.