Tunisia is a magical place alive with color and culture and some great characters. When the name Mohammed Messaoudi is mentioned it is said with deep reverence, but with a touch of humor. Ibticem Kamoun, a consultant working in Tunis to assist in the selection of twelve artisan producers to bring to the United States, has set him up as temperamental, a “true artist" and a "mad hatter,” This character or persona has been underplayed.
When approaching Messaoudi’s house, there’s an Alice in Wonderland feel, like you’re stumbling upon the white rabbit and falling. There’s a tingling anticipation mixed with a little uncertainty and general excitement.
Step over the threshold into this space and the tumble begins. You enter a fantastical inner courtyard lined with rooms, offices, and products. You are surrounded by antique textiles that hang overhead, people-sized ceramic urns and amphorae line the periphery along with marble and alabaster hand carved sinks scattered on the ground. There are hanging tiles, and iron, wood and fiber everywhere! It’s a veritable feast for the creative eye, and it is overwhelming!
Messaoudi appears--the quirky mad hatter with a mischievous, artistic twinkle in his eye and a shock of grey hair peppering his dark curls. He speaks rapidly--a mixture of English, French, and Arabic--often punctuated with grandiose adjectives. He is at once passionate and earnest about his love for his country and its rich and varied heritage and culture. He has an almost manic passion for collecting absolutely everything that it has ever produced!
Producing a hose, he drenches the marble and alabaster sinks to show the depth and beauty of the colors of stones mined here in his homeland. They leap to life under the deluge in rich hues of ambers, pinks, and rusts as he sprays, walks, and talks incessantly.
The next stop is a room filled with ceramics comprised of old and contemporary styles created with antique and new materials. There are large and small, subtle and wildly colored, glazed, hand painted and inlaid urns, jars, jugs, plates, wall plaques, tiles and even ceramic seating.
Moving deeper into the premises is like winding through ancient souk streets. Twenty-five artisans are training and working in room after room, twisting and turning through the labyrinth of this never-ending house cum workshop. Each space is filled with hand-worked wrought iron or hand woven fiber, mounds of textiles, glass or hand painted tiles. The room of antique wood is a treasure, worthy of a museum, filled with pieces he will never sell, collected for over twenty years. As the consummate designer he utilizes marvelous mixes in his own unique way to blend these materials. Centuries meld in his hands, creating a living culture.
Old inspires the new here, and it’s not surprising that any visitor might feel slightly small and truly inspired. And then he turns and asks, “Tea anyone?"