The Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was one of the most brilliantly original designers of the early 20th century. His work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but he has since been recognised unique talent and as one of the pioneers of Modernism.
The Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was one of the most brilliantly original designers of the early 20th century. His work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but he has since been recognised as a unique talent and one of the pioneers of Modernism. He created an individual style that was instantly recognisable and which he applied to architecture, interior design and furniture. His work combined a progressive modernity with the spirit of romanticism. Mackintosh developed a decorative style based on black and white grid patterns, over which he laid sweeping sinuous lines. His use of line is very similar to Art Nouveau, but the underlying grid is original and makes his work more relentlessly modern than most Art Nouveau.
Mackintosh was born on 7 June 1868 in Glasgow and his career coincided with Glasgow’s economic boom. The shipbuilding industry generated a huge amount of wealth and Glasgow industrialists had a strong sense of civic pride, which caused them to invest their money in architecture. This meant that Glasgow was a rich source of commissions for an architect and designer, and most of Mackintosh‘s work is concentrated in the city.
In 1883, at the age of fifteen, Mackintosh began evening classes at Glasgow School of Art. In 1889, he joined the architectural firm of Honeyman & Keppie and worked as a draughtsman. His talent emerged quickly and within a year he won the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship, which was named after the great Neo-Classical architect, Alexander Thomson. This was the most prestigious architectural prize in Glasgow. Mackintosh used the money to travel to Italy, France and Belgium, where he encountered the new continental style known as Art Nouveau. This was a major source of inspiration. Art Nouveau spread throughout Europe, but was never fully accepted in Britain because the sensuality and eroticism were felt to be too risqué. However, Mackintosh was the most avant-garde designer in Britain and his mature work has much in common with Art Nouveau.
Mackintosh’s ideas continued to germinate. In 1891 he delivered a paper to the Glasgow Architectural Association entitled ‘Scottish Baronial Architecture’. This celebrated Scottish baronial castles like Craigievar Castle. He admired Scotland’s vernacular architecture because he felt it embodied Scottish national identity.
Mackintosh began to move in progressive circles. He befriended Francis Newbery, who was the director of Glasgow School of Art. He was also friends with Herbert McNair, who was a fellow draughtsman in the firm of Honeyman & Keppie. He knew the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, who were students at Glasgow School of Art. The Macdonald sisters developed a feminine, highly symbolic style of design.
Mackintosh always struggled to get commissions because his work was too radical and he refused to compromise. As an architect, his greatest achievement was the Glasgow School of Art (1897-9). The director of the school was Mackintosh’s supporter Francis Newbery. In 1896 Newbery invited twelve local firms to enter a competition to design a new building for the school. One of these firms was Honeyman & Keppie, which was almost certainly selected because of Mackintosh’s friendship with Newbery.
The school was built in two stages: the first stage began in 1899 and shows the influence of contemporary Art Nouveau; the second phase began in 1905 and was much more radical; it anticipates the revolution of European Modernism. The School has an austere and asymmetrical north façade with huge windows to illuminate the studios behind. They flood the interior with light. The entrance is an abstract interlocking of forms. Mackintosh has cut away at the wall to create an organic stone composition animated by the interplay between solid and void.
Between the first and second phases Mackintosh changed his approach. The west end is more radical and progressive than the north. He produced an abstract spatial design, which is imaginative and complex. It has projecting windows encased in glass, which are incredibly modernistic. The vertical sheets of glass contrast with the bold, plain stonework. The east face has sheer walls, which are very stark and brutal like a Scottish castle. The whole building is executed in grim local stone, which is resilient to the harsh climate and expresses Scottish vernacular tradition.
One of Mackintosh’s best interiors is the library. This has a complex gallery designed on a three-dimensional grid pattern. Suspended light fittings with stained glass give it a transcendental atmosphere. The central fall of light from the windows contrasts with the dark wood. The Japanese grid pattern provides the underlying structure.
His second school design was more radical. This is Scotland Street School, Glasgow (1903-6). This was perhaps Mackintosh’s most modernistic building, but even here there is a strong craft ethic. It was built of red Dumfrieshire stone. The composition is inventive with a strong rectangular form flanked by round staircase towers. The towers are still reminiscent of baronial architecture. The severe masonry is enlivened with curtains of glass. This anticipates the mathematical precision of Bauhaus architecture.
The Mackintosh style is revealed in the details, which are much more individualistic and expressive than was typical for a school. This image shows the window detail, with typical carving and inlaid tiles.
The School of Art shows what Mackintosh could achieve when he had full control, but he needed clients who would give him free range. After Francis Newberry, his most supportive client was Kate Cranston, who ran a chain of ‘artistic’ tea rooms in Glasgow. At this time the temperance movement was promoting alternatives to the evils of drink and tea rooms became fashionable. Miss Cranston’s tearooms played an important role in Glasgow life, supporting the new culture of consumption associated with the department stores.
In 1896 Miss Cranston commissioned Mackintosh to provide stencil decoration for the walls of her tea rooms on Buchanan Street (1896-7). Mackintosh created a frieze depicting elongated female figures entangled in roses. This commission led to others for Miss Cranston, including the Ingram Street (1901) and Willow Tea Rooms (1903-4). He designed a complete decorative scheme for each one, which included everything from furniture and menus to the waitresses’ uniforms. Like most Art Nouveau, Mackintosh’s work expressed a unity of the arts. Art, architecture and design were unified in a complete environment that was light, elegant and sophisticated.
The Willow Tea Rooms occupied a narrow site on Sauchiehall Street. ‘Sauchiehall’ is old Scots for ‘alley of willows’. For that reason, the willow tree was used as a recurrent motif. The façade has a slight curvature. The upper half is an asymmetrical composition and the long window has willow tree motifs executed in stained glass. The most extravagant scheme was the Room de Luxe on the first floor. This was an ethereal white space with a frieze of coloured glass and gesso panels by Margaret Macdonald.
Mackintosh designed a number of private houses. In this sphere he could find private clients who believed in him. His most important house was Hill House, which was built on a hillside on the outskirts of Helensburgh. This was built for the publisher Walter Blackie. This was a long, narrow building with all the major rooms looking south over the Firth of Clyde. The exterior is severe and grey. Mackintosh used local sandstone and plain roughcast walls. It has a massive chimney and staircase tower, which came from the Scottish baronial tradition.
The exterior of Hill House is very rugged, but Mackintosh was allowed free rein with the decoration of the interior. Hill House is the only one to retain its original interior. Mackintosh often used a polarity of light and dark – he experimented with the contrast of light and dark rooms, trying to create ‘male’ and ‘female’ spaces. Hill House features a heavy, protective entrance hall. The light fittings are geometric cages with stained glass.
Moving through the space you come to a light, ethereal bedroom, with a vaulted ceiling. It has an atmosphere of femininity and sensuality. The ladder-backed chair was influenced by Japanese grid patterns. The wardrobes have a very sculptural form; they are white, which seems to reduce their mass. There is a small passage of colour with the usual linear patterns and rose motifs.
Mackintosh was a highly individualistic designer whose work cannot be confined to any one style or movement. Overall, his work was relentlessly modern and anticipated the more radical architecture of the 1920s.