Designing the Future: The Timeless Influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh - A Fine Armchair, Designed for the Willow Tea Rooms. Charles Rennie Mackintosh - A Fine Armchair, Designed for the Willow Tea Rooms. Sold for £21,000 GBP via Sotheby's (Oct 2006).
Charles Rennie Mackintosh - Yellow Tulips.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Yellow Tulips. Sold for £130,000 GBP via Lyon & Turnbull
(Sept 2012).

The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh is widely admired by designers of today who continue to draw upon a philosophy that placed equal importance on both beauty and function in architecture. Bridging the gap between 19th and 20th century theories in architecture and design, Mackintosh was ahead of his time in ways that are still felt in the 21st century.

Design history experts, Charlotte and Peter Fiell have noted that, “as one of the founding fathers of organic Modernism, Charles Rennie Mackintosh left an important legacy that is extremely relevant to our own times – a holistic and humanistic approach to design that comprehends the world as a complex living organism and respects the personal, social, environmental and spiritual realities found within it.”

This article explores Mackintosh’s design career and his enduring legacy in design of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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Early Life and Career

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s name has become synonymous with the city of Glasgow, where he was born in 1869. Living in the city until 1914, his time in Glasgow coincided with a period of the city’s greatest prosperity.

Mackintosh went to the Glasgow School of Art from 1884, attending evening classes that focused on draughtsmanship and painting until the School opened its Architectural Section in 1887. At this time the Glasgow School of Art was one of the leading art academies in Europe and Glasgow’s reputation in architecture and the decorative arts was at its peak. It was at the Glasgow School of Art that Mackintosh met his wife, Margaret Macdonald, who he collaborated with throughout his life.

In 1989, Mackintosh moved from his architectural apprenticeship with local architect John Hutchison, to the more established city practice of Honeyman and Keppie, completing significant projects including the design for the Glasgow Herald Building in 1894. This early design brought together local tradition with a far-sighted modernism that Mackintosh so admired of Scotland’s native architecture.

Mackintosh and the Birth of Modernism

Delivering a lecture in 1891, Mackintosh argued that the Scottish Baronial style was inherently “modern” due to its functionalism, and was untarnished by classicism, celebrating its facility to convert “useful features into elements of beauty.” The catchphrase of the modernist architecture of the 1920s, ‘form follows function’ certainly comes through in Mackintosh’s statements. But even more starkly is Mackintosh’s influence felt in the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright who followed from the teachings of modernist architecture to assert that “form and function are one.”

One of Mackintosh’s most substantial commissions was to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art in 1986. The building was constructed in two distinct parts, 1897-99 and 1907-09, due to a lack of funds. The delay affected the design stylistically, allowing Mackintosh to amend the original design by integrating a more 20th century style and splitting the facade into a 19th century Scots baronial side and a modernist facade. The design owed much to traditional Japanese interiors, not least the innovative use of timber and the dramatic interior of the new Library which was a complex space of dark timber posts and beams.

Mackintosh was directly influenced by an English interpretation of Japanese paintings and design. The esthetic movement of the 1860s and 1870s, brought Japanese culture to Europe, and was strongly felt in the paintings of J.M. Whistler and the architect E. W. Goodwin, who Mackintosh admired. In addition, links between Glasgow and Japan were strong due to trade and the shipbuilding industry. The interior design of Mackintosh and MacDonald’s 120 Mains Street flat had Ukiyo-e hanging on the wall, an Ikebana flower arrangement and white painted walls with pilasters and projecting beams and is where their admiration for Japanese design is best understood.

‘Total Design’ and Beauty in the Everyday

Known as ‘The Four’, together with his friend and colleague at Honeyman and Keppie, Herbert McNair, and two fellow students, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Mackintosh experimented with a variety of decorative forms and mediums. This experimentation developed and grew into what is now known as The Glasgow Style.

Sharing principles with the Arts and Crafts Movement, The Glasgow Style advocated for the ‘total design,’ which was to design every aspect of an interior including furniture, metalwork, stained glass and graphic art.

Following success and acclaim in Europe, back in Scotland in 1904, Mackintosh was commissioned to design the family home of publisher Walter Blackie. This design was very reminiscent of his House for an Art Lover designs and an earlier completed domestic commission, Windyhill (1900). The exterior of Hill House is notablefor its simple and solid massed forms with little ornamentation, contrasted with the interior that emanates light and space, colour and careful decoration. Controlling the design of everything from the furniture, interior decorations and light fittings, the Hill House was one of Mackintosh’s most significant ‘total designs.’

Mackintosh’s Enduring Design Legacy

Mackintosh’s designs pre-empt a wave of modern and post-modern innovation, and his cutting-edge minimal aesthetic is one that is widely sought after for interior home design in the twenty-first century.

The Cosmic House, built between 1978 and 1983 by Maggie Charles Jencks, is recognisably influenced by the ethos and stylistic motifs of Mackintosh’s domestic designs. The influence of The Glasgow Style’s ‘total design,’ shared by the post-modern Gesamtkunstwerk, is felt in the Jencks’ design as they integrated art, original bespoke furniture, and ideas into the house’s architecture. The Cosmic House is decidedly post-modern, with its fragmented forms and architectural citations, one being Mackintosh, most clearly recognised in the white-walled ‘Four Square Room.’

Another post-modern reference to Mackintosh is Wendy Maruyama’s Mickey Mackintosh chair from 1981. The design asks a simple question: what happens when you cross a Charles Rennie Mackintosh high-backed chair with a pair of Disney Mickey Mouse ears? Employing the classic postmodern ‘pastiche’ technique, this object, which is now itself an iconic in design history, further demonstrates Mackintosh’s influence on postmodernism.

The 1980s housing development that stands by the water of Greenland Dock in southeast London has hints of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in its heavily leaded window design. Additionally, the square mullions of the windows in Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art building were embraced in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and carried all the way to business parks across North America.

The 2016 residential scheme, Walmer Yard, London, by architects like Peter Salter, has a sense of being indirectly influenced by the domestic project of Mackintosh. The project’s emphasis on using a combination of new, old and non-standard materials chosen for fitness of purpose rather than ease of construction or cost, is where Mackintosh’s ethos of prioritising both form and function is felt. In addition, the space is constructed with emphasis on how space is experienced from its interior.

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