Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was a Scottish artist, architect, and interior/furniture/textile designer who had a professional influence on the development of the Modern movement. He worked to create totally integrated art/architecture.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on June 7, 1868. He gained entry to the Glasgow School of Art where he studied principally architecture and design and was recognized as a remarkable talent by the school's director, Fra Newbery. Mackintosh joined the architectural practice of Honeyman and Keppie (1889) as a draftsman and won the competition to design and build a new School of Art for his mentor, Newbery, in 1896: this was his first major building commission and was a revolutionary design quite unlike anything erected in Europe to that date. Austere, elegant, defiantly "modern," it was shorn of almost all decoration and made historical references to Scottish vernacular architecture and to Japanese arts, a culture in which Mackintosh had an abiding interest. The building established Mackintosh from the outset as a radical architect determined to find a new design language appropriate for the coming 20th century. It has been said that modern architecture began when Mackintosh built the Glasgow School of Art.

While generally associated with the art nouveau style, Mackintosh rejected such comparisons and did not feel part of the 19th-century art nouveau European style represented by Guimard, Horta, van der Velde, or Gaudi, and little of their sinuous "whiplash" curvilinear expression is to be seen in Mackintosh's work. He sought to unite natural forms, especially those deriving from plants and flowers, with a new architectural and design vocabulary that set him well apart from the mainstream of architects who looked to Greece, Rome, and Egypt for inspiration from the antique. His marriage to a talented artist-designer, Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933), and the marriage of her sister, Frances, to Mackintosh's close friend Herbert McNair led to the formation of a brilliantly creative group, clearly led by Mackintosh, known variously as "The Four" or "The Spook School."

Considerable attention was focussed on the work of Mackintosh and the "Glasgow Style" artists and designers who had come from the School of Art. In 1900 Mackintosh and his friends were invited to create a room complete with furnishings at the Vienna Seccession exhibition. This created huge interest, and the Mackintoshes were lionized when they went to Vienna. Their exhibition display had a direct influence on the development of the Wiener Werkstatte formed shortly thereafter by Josef Hoffmann. Hoffmann and Mackintosh were close friends, and Hoffmann visited Glasgow twice to see Mackintosh's work, as did the influential critic Hermann Muthesius and the Werkstatte's patron, Fritz Wärndorfer. "The Four" exhibited widely in Europe, both together and individually, and Mackintosh received commissions for furniture from patrons in Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere in Europe.

In Glasgow Mackintosh's greatest public exposure was through the creation of a number of restaurants, the tea rooms of his most enduring patron, Kate Cranston. The tea rooms provided a wonderful opportunity for Mackintosh to put into practice his belief that the architect was responsible for every aspect of the commissioned work. At The Willow Tea Room (1903) he converted an existing interior into a remarkable dramatic and elegant series of contrasting interiors with furniture, carpet, wall decor, light fittings, menu, flower vases, cutlery, and waitresses' wear all designed by Mackintosh to create a harmonious whole, implementing the idea of totally integrated art-architecture. It is said that Mackintosh used to go to the Room de Luxe at The Willow just before it opened for morning coffee to arrange the flowers and ensure the perfection of his creation!

Surprisingly, despite Mackintosh's fame in Europe and the numerous articles in, for example, The Studio magazine devoted to his work, he never became a dominant force in Glasgow architecture. He created the private house Windyhill in 1901, a number of tea rooms, many works of decorative art and furniture, and other architectural conversions but never had the opportunity to create a second masterpiece after the School of Art and in the manner of Hoffmann's success with the Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905) which owes so much to Mackintosh's influence. The dramatic designs for the huge International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901 were rejected as too radical, and his entries for other competitions—for example, Liverpool Cathedral—were unsuccessful. His direct influence on European architecture came not by examples but by suggestions, notably the distribution of a full-color lithographic portfolio of "Designs for the House of an Art-Lover" (1901), which was never built.

The Hill House of 1902 is the best example of Mackintosh's domestic architectural style and interior (open to the public: National Trust for Scotland) and has survived virtually intact. The Mackintoshes' own house, complete with its furnishings, has been brilliantly recreated at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow (open to the public), while his Glasgow School of Art has undergone extensive restoration of its interiors and collection (open to the public).

Mackintosh left Glasgow in 1915 for reasons never exactly clear but associated with a notable lack of commissions and the general building slump occasioned by the onset of World War I. He moved to England and journeyed to France and created a sumptuous series of watercolors of the landscape and flowers. Opportunities for a stylized series of flower forms to become widely-distributed printed textiles failed to materialize.

The famous flowing white-on-white interiors of the Glasgow period were replaced by geometric black-on-black interiors which clearly anticipated Art Deco in his final architectural commissions: 78 Derngate, Northampton, England, in 1915/1916, and the "Dug-Out" additions to the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow.

Mackintosh was a visionary designer and architect who had a professional influence on the development of the Modern movement. Although prolific during the height of his most creative years, 1896-1916, much of his work has been lost and the remainder is essentially confined to the city of Glasgow and surrounding region. Although completely neglected and largely ignored in the middle decades of this century, he has now been the subject of intense scrutiny and rediscovery. His furniture and textile designs are being produced with notable success, and in 1979 a writing desk he designed in 1901 for his own use reached the then world record price paid at auction for any piece of 20th-century furniture, 89,200 pounds. Now much admired and copied, he is seen as a central figure in the development of integrated art-architecture at the turn of the century and a seminal influence on many architects and designers of the Post Modern movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Charles Rennie Mackintosh died in distressed circumstances in London in 1928; his wife Margaret in 1933.

Further Reading on Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Additional information on the work of Mackintosh can be found in "Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement" (1977) by Thomas Howarth; "Charles Rennie Mackintosh Artist and Architect" (1983) by Robert McLeod; "Charles Rennie Mackintosh Architecture" (1980) by Jackie Cooper; and "Mackintosh Textile Designs" (1982), "Mackintosh Watercolours" (1979), and "The Complete Mackintosh Furniture, Drawings and Interiors" (1979), all by Roger Billcliffe. A thriving CRM Society devoted to the preservation of his work and to scholarship on the period publishes a quarterly newsletter and is based at Mackintosh's Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow.

Additional Biography Sources

Crawford, Alan, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Howarth, Thomas, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the modern movement, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society. Mackintosh & his contemporaries in Europe and America, London: J. Murray, 1988.

Macleod, Robert, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: architect and artist, New York: Dutton, 1983.

Moffat, Alistair, Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh: an illustrated biography, Lanark: C. Baxter Photography, 1989.