A Scottish Rose

By Laura Gerhaeusser

Following Charles Rennie Mackintosh: an extraordinary life in architecture, design and the arts. Discover more about the pioneer of the Glasgow Style.

Imagine this: you’re sitting on a chair. You stretch your back and make yourself long. Leaning back, you can feel the sturdy wood supporting your back. As you run your fingers along the back of the chair, you feel the vertical pieces of wood, that seemingly build a minimalistic throne.

The elongated lines come to an end, as they meet at a solid, halo-shaped ending. A piece of furniture with straight, defined lines – useful, minimal – and in spite of all – chic.

Not a description you would typically align with furniture made in the Victorian times, am I right? And it’s true – finding, creating and establishing this particular style in the heyday of velvet chaise longues, padded armchairs and pretty, but uncomfortable chairs, was a tricky task. But one man would take his groundbreaking ideas and take Europe by storm – A Scotsman, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: designer, architect, painter and visionary.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Dining Room at 6 Florentine Terrace, Glasgow    © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Reconstructed in The Mackintosh House, The Hunterian

To tell the story of this great pioneer, we’re going back to 1868’s Glasgow – when Mackintosh was born in the harbor city, known for its excellent trade relations to countries all around the world.

Growing up, he seemed to have always been interested in the arts and, particularly, architecture. After graduating, he quickly sought professional training in order to become an architect and found his fertile soil at Honeyman and Keppie, an established architectural practice in Scotland’s capital. Alongside his work there, he also attended evening classes at Glasgow School Of Art. It was here where he learned how to put his ideas onto paper properly, thus getting closer to actually building his “castles in the air”.

He made good use of his time at the recognized institute, as he educated himself with the help of architecture and art magazines, studying his contemporaries’ work. He went on to win numerous student prizes and even was enabled to go to an architectural tour of Italy.

His designs and architectural plans started to take solid shape now. Taking inspiration from his Scottish upbringing and blending them with two upcoming ideas: the Art Nouveau movement – a style most popular between 1890 and 1910, known for its reminiscence of natural forms and shapes, like plants and flowers. Secondly, he was fond of traditional Japanese art (also known as Japonism) -characteristic for its use of space, imitation of nature and simple forms.

He adored these Asian principles for their modest meaning of rather having a piece of furniture for the sake of its original purpose as opposed to artificially making it “beautiful”. Simple forms, organic materials, imitating shapes, textures and light that is in tune with what nature has to offer: these attributes, associated with the two styles, become a major part of his artistic DNA.

One of his earliest architectural endeavors was being part of the planning for Martyrs’ Public School in Glasgow in 1895. Looking at the colours, the clear formation of the railings and the overall layout, Mackintosh’s influence and legacy are omnipresent: the centerpiece, that is steadily flooded with light, the straight, defining lines of the dark wood and the rounded arches above the doors.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Martyrs’ Public School   © Stuart Robertson

He went on to experiment with a wide variety of artistic expressions: posters, metal works, graphic design and decorative forms. An image that would then become part of his trademark was his design of a rose: simple, beautiful and straight-lined. This flower would often find its way into projects of his and reflected his love for nature in art.

In 1896 he received the brief of his lifetime: designing a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. Because money was short, it had to be completed in two separate building phases. This allowed him to fully translate his vision into reality – a bold mixture of different styles and cultural architectural ideas. You can spot traditional Scottish Baronial tradition, next to Japanese simplism and a visionary glimpse into the upcoming 20th century.

This eclectic new style soon found numerous admirers in many European countries. Germany, Austria, Russia,… just to name a few places that appreciated and exhibited his work. At the time, he didn’t find the recognition he was hoping for in Scotland, though. Very few were ready to commission him to implement his “total design” – the inside and outside of a building.

After returning from a tour of Europe in 1904, he got asked to design a family home: The Hill House in Helensburgh. From the outside, it was notable for its simple and solid massed forms with little ornamentation. On the inside, the rooms exuded light and space, and the use of colour and decoration was carefully conceived.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
The Hill House Entrance Gate  c.1904   © Stuart Robertson

He entered a design to a competition for a cathedral for the City of Liverpool (1902), but his plans were declined. The last public commission he would successfully bring to life was his design for Scotland Street School (1906) in Glasgow.

South elevation of Scotland Street School     © Stuart Robertson
South Elevation of Scotland Street School     © Stuart Robertson

After completing this last building, he fell more and more bitter about his almost non-existing following and popularity in his hometown. So much so, that he and his wife made a move to London in 1914, in an attempt to resurrect his career. With World War 1 just around the corner, this was unfortunate timing. All building work was now heavily restricted.

In 1923, he made the decision to leave his known ground and moved to the South of France. This marked the end of Charles Rennie Mackintosh ‘s extraordinary artistic career. He spent the rest of his years painting, until he died in 1928.

In 2018, a fire broke out and caused extreme damage to his masterpiece, The Glasgow School of Art. The reasons for this remain unsolved. Tragically, at the time of the fire, sprinklers had yet to be installed on the ceilings. Parts of them had been delivered the day before the fire. The city and the school are still working hand in hand in order to restore the building to the best of their abilities.

What remains of Mackintosh is a legacy incomparable to any other Scottish architect. His daring blend of traditional Scottish design and Japonism was a bold and uncommon vision and went on to change architecture forever.

Nowadays, well-renowned, as well as up-and-coming architects are inspired by his work. The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is an independent, non-profit making charity, established in 1973 to promote and encourage awareness of the Scottish architect and designer. This year, they held a competition calling all architects to send in their ideas inspired by the master of the Glasgow Style.

If you want to find out more about this brilliant society and to have a glimpse at the winners’ models and designs, visit their website here.

Have you enjoyed reading about one of the pioneers in architecture? Why not have a look at The Universal Bauhaus Brand or A New Appreciation for Brutalism’s Unadorned Concrete Monsters ?

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