It all started with a trip. Or, rather, a trip that never happened.
Tessa and Brian Pinner had long been avid travel buffs, and in 2015, their hunger for adventure sent them thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean and into the northernmost region of the African continent. She had family in Sahara-bordering Tunisia, but it only made sense, what with their already being halfway around the world, for the couple to extend the journey and explore one country that their globe-trotting feet had yet to take them—Morocco. The Pinners set off for the city of Fes, with plans to go to the major city of Marrakesh sometime during the five days they’d set aside for their detour excursion.
They didn’t make it to Marrakesh. Instead, the pair were captivated with Fes, charmed by a people, an architecture, a community, and a way of life that was, well, magical. Like a cut pattern hand-stamped into one of its artisan’s traditional leather poufs, Fes had left an impression. They’d formed a bond with the city, Tessa says, an intimate, natural connection that would bind itself to the Pinners and hold tight long after they’d returned to the Upstate. Neither she nor her husband knew it at the time, but that initial brush with Moroccan culture would sow the seeds of an idea, a dream to share Fes’s centuries-old traditions and exquisite artistry with others. Two years later, that dream would have a name: Broaden.
While Fes holds the title of Morocco’s second largest city, it’s also revered as an epicenter of cultural significance and craftsmanship, still steeped in the history of its passed-down customs. Stepping across the threshold into the old medina—an ancient walled city believed to have been founded sometime in the eighth or ninth century—is like traversing a barrier back in time and entering an “old, magical world,” Tessa says. No motorized vehicles are allowed within the bowl-shaped district, obligating natives, tourists, and visitors to navigate the narrow, winding streets on foot. Locals recommend tossing the map—you will get lost somewhere along these maze-like thoroughfares—and allow yourself to simply become absorbed amongst the donkeys and natives with push carts going about their average day. You’ll pass incredible marketplaces lined with eclectic shops peddling all kinds of wares, vibrant with activity as vendors entreat you to buy this, look at this, name your price on this. There are those items that have become somewhat symbolic of the Mediterranean creative aesthetic, a diverse sideshow of textures, colors, and materials, each with its own distinct personality and story to tell. Like many Moroccan cities, Fes is a place of things to be bought. But that’s not what attracted the Pinners to this “Mecca of the West.”
“We knew we wanted to go where things were being made, not just where they were being sold,” Tessa explains. “Even as tourists, we were told that if you can find little shops where a man was actually making stuff, buy from him because then you’re supporting that man directly. He’s not just getting a cut of your purchase and barely making enough to live on.”
The Pinners kept this advice in mind when they began brainstorming ideas for a joint venture with Brian’s brother Nathan and his wife, Katelyn. They’d had been toying for some time with the idea of starting a family business together, but with four sets of complementary skills in various specialties—Tessa creates wedding cakes as Tessa Pinner Cakes, and Katelyn designs flower arrangements for her business ModFete, while Brian and Nathan are both involved in the property field—it was hard to nail down a concept. Once again, Tessa and Brian reflected on Morocco.
“We’d been thinking back on that trip and how much we really wanted to share the things that we saw there,” Tessa says, “how much we wanted to bring what we loved about Fes back for other people. We thought, ‘What if we started importing these goods from Morocco?’” She laughs. “Nathan and Katelyn had never been, so they took a leap of faith and jumped on board. Everything else happened kind of quickly.”
“So quickly, in fact, that in 2017, Tessa and her sister-in-law found themselves on a “whirlwind” week and a half scouting expedition in Morocco. The women opted to go in March, when the tourist season is not yet at its peak and the summertime heat hasn’t forced locals to close up shop and depart on holiday with family and friends. With a general list in hand and a determination to “peel back the layers” of where things come from and who makes them, their crusade often involved hours spent in market stalls with vendors, a calculator, and translator between them as hand gestures, drawings, and pointing substituted for the words that language barriers would not permit. They haggled with vendors over rug prices—a necessity in the business, lest you get cheated—deep inside hidden mountain villages. Their goal was to create an inventory that represented Fes’ three biggest categories of craftsmanship: leather, textiles, and pottery. The experience, Tessa admits, was nothing short of “transformational.”
Tessa knows exactly when she first fell in love with leather poufs.
In a guest house called the Dar Roumana, two poufs sat by the fireplace, a placement Tessa says seemed like it had lasted 100 years. Worn-in patches, they were not pristine but well-loved, neatly stitched by hand in a dark mahogany hide. Tessa and Katelyn often sat on these poufs at the end of a long day, marveling at their comfort and ability to go from end table to footrest to seat in a pinch. This, Tessa thought, was something they had to have.
You can overlook Morocco’s oldest leather tannery—the Chouara—while in Fes. The limestone vats glint like a painter’s palette of radiant colors, reds, oranges, browns, yellows, greens, and blues dappling in the open air. It’s an all-natural method that has been around for centuries, and one that truly epitomizes the culture of Fes.
“It’s this encapsulated process because it’s all starting and ending at the same place,” Tessa says. “There’s these men processing the skins with their feet, and then they go into one vat and then another, and then they’ll be transferred to another part of the same medina where they’ll be sewn by artisans and made into things. It’s just really neat.”
When choosing what to stock, Tessa says they considered how people will use these pieces in their home, and how to make them work in different styles of decor. They worked closely with a local artisan and landed on the square shape in more natural tones they could see fitting in anywhere, with pillows that would accent the poufs and “play off” each other as a set. Shoulder bags stiff enough to hold laptops were crafted, and a weekender duffel bag is currently in the works. Artisans are used to making custom orders like theirs, Tessa says, but she also adds that the Broaden brand will never change the “soul” of what makes these traditions so special.
“We are not going to make design choices to push the artists in a direction that’s not their aesthetic already,” she claims. “We want to say, ‘If this is what you’re making, let us curate it.’ It’s that kind of selection.”
If you’re perusing the pottery at a Fes marketplace, you’re bound to notice one thing. Man, some of these bowls are huge. Broaden actually stocks one. Twenty inches across, the massive vessel was created using the city’s original design library and decorated by an artisan who trained as a master painter. He is responsible for every stage of the piece’s formation, an endeavor which uses clay dug from hillsides that is then smashed by foot, soaked for softness, and fired in a kiln cleanly fueled with the by-product of another major Moroccan export business—olive pits. The artisan uses a potter’s wheel and horsehair brushes for painting those perfectly symmetrical rings before a design is mapped out and filled in bit by bit—often in shades of “Fes Blue,” a deep cobalt with origins in the region’s natural landscape. It’s time-consuming work, and each bowl is always a tiny bit different.
“When you examine them, no one is ever going to be exactly the same. But it gives them character,” she notes. “These designs are so special, and we want to keep them these sizes and shapes because if you try and cut it down, you’ll lose some of this amazing detail.”
One of these same bowls rests on Brian and Tessa’s dining room table. To remain accessible for potential buyers, they also requested their artisan make smaller serving pieces that would be suitable for weekday dinners and not just the festive occasion. And if you want to do as the Moroccans do, start clearing some wall space.
“For something that’s so beautiful, you wouldn’t want to hide any of these in your cupboard,” Tessa says. “When the bowls and serving pieces aren’t in use, they’ll just hang them on the wall. It’s this constellation of all these amazing different patterns, and then when it’s needed again, they just take it right down.”
The drive from Fes into the Atlas Mountains—a range that spans Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—takes about three hours. When Tessa and Katelyn were dropped off at the nearby village with their sourcer, they were told some of their hosts might not have seen a Western women before. It’s rare for tourists to visit these parts, even rarer to locate the tribal communities where rugs and blankets are woven almost exclusively by women. Many of these tribes—particularly the Berber subset—only speak their dialect. Broaden’s sourcer, for example, works with the village shaman in Arabic, who then relays messages to the artisans in their native tongue. Left with no option other than to smile and not be intrusive, Tessa and Katelyn simply watched history weave itself (quite literally) right in front of them.
“Watching these women sit and do this by hand, and really valuing the hand-done process, was just extremely humbling,” she recalls. “They’re not complaining. This is what they’ve done for generations, and they know it’s a good thing.”
“Moroccan rugs are typically crafted based upon geography. Flat weaves are characteristic of warmer climates and proximity to the Sahara, where the rug acts as a sand barrier rather than an means of heat. Higher piles indicate higher altitudes, with thicker textiles to provide needed comfort. Mid-range villages often use dual-sided rugs that can be flipped over depending on the season. The same can be said for blankets, which are often made with wool in the loftier regions. The textiles are stitched with symbols that describe life as a tribe. They ask for protection, fertility, birds, and blessings on their crops. There are many appeals for survival.
“It’s like they are inscribing into their textiles the things they hope and wish for their life together,” Tessa muses as she looks over their collection of rugs. “There’s something really amazing about how everything is different. Some are new, some are old. There’s just a big mix, and what you find is what you find. I think there’s a magic in things not being regulated.”
the journey abroad When it came to choosing a name, the Pinners did not want to rush things. Their title—along with the logo—would be well-considered and thought out, and embody the idea that your home doesn’t have to all come from one big-box retailer. There’s no prize for being matchy-matchy, all the time.
Within a week, they had it. At home abroad, abroad at home.
“The term broaden is this idea of looking outside of where you’re at,” Tessa says. “I think you get a better perspective on your own home by going and seeing how other people live. You can buy these things because they’re pretty and that’s a perfectly good reason. But if you also know the story of where it came from and who made it, that’s when you get the most value out of it.”
The logo, a medallion shape with an interior core and arrows pointing out in all directions, is a symbol of the Pinners’ hopes for Broaden’s future. They’ve held two pop-ups and can be found online, but Tessa says they eventually hope to expand into other countries, showcasing even more takes on provincial craftsmanship. Ultimately, they hope to ensure the continued tradition of Moroccan artisans, a commerce depending on patronage and steady work to thrive and be trickled down to the next generation. She recalls how heartwrenching it was to be told by locals that streets once bustling with workers are now empty, how easy it would be for this culture to just be gone. A taxi driver—and former Moroccan national soccer player—once urged them to tell people to come visit Morocco, that without their support, the industry would die out. Even today, his words still resonate.
“It’s complicated because you want to support something that has been going on for so long and is so beautiful, but you want to do it in a way that gives people the best life. You have to be sensitive,” she says. “We’re just at the beginning, but we’re excited at the prospect. If we can just have relationships with a few people and make sure they have work for the foreseeable future, that would be amazing.”
For more information on Broaden, or to purchase their curated products, visit broadengoods.com.