The Tea Rooms of Mackintosh
The Mackintoshes had been transforming Glasgow tea-room interiors, and this continued on a larger scale in 1903, when Kate Cranston opened new tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street, among some of Glasgow's newest shops and largest department stores.
They were called the Willow Tea Rooms, from the Celtic meaning of Sauchiehall, "a boggy place full of willows." Cranston had acquired an existing building, no. 217, consisting of a basement, four stories at the front, and one at the back — part of a uniform, stuccoed mid-Victorian terrace.
Mackintosh remodeled the front, stripping away the existing moldings to create an irregular, abstractly modeled composition of shallow curves to the wall face, exaggeratedly deep reveals to some of the windows, and a border of little squares around the edges.
Juggling with Space
On the ground floor he set the entrance back with a long, small-paned, and curtained window, expressing a discreet welcome. This front was startlingly new in Glasgow and must have helped to advertise the tea rooms. It was also new in Mackintosh's work, though the modeled forms perhaps owe something to the soft geometry of Scottish vernacular houses, which Mackintosh had learned to handle at Windyhill and The Hill House.
The section drawing shows how the different rooms were arranged. On the ground floor was a ladies' tea room at the front and a general lunch room at the back, with a tea gallery above it. The vaulted room at the front of the first floor was a more exclusive ladies' room, with the men's billiard and smoking room on the floor above.
The section also shows a gap of about three feet (90 centimeters) between the floor level of the gallery at the back and the ceiling of the ground floor at the front. Mackintosh filled this gap with an open screen of decorative metalwork and designed another for the stairs.
The resulting sense of interconnected spaces delighted Modernist admirers of Mackintosh such as Nikolaus Pevsner, who wrote that these "fascinating vistas" revealed Mackintosh as "the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the few true forerunners of the most ingenious juggler with space now alive: Le Corbusier."
This was not, however, just juggling with space for its own sake. By combining a sense of enclosure with glimpses of distance, the Mackintoshes gave physical shape to the private and the public elements in a place of refreshment. This was the first time that their tea-room designs had acknowledged the specially public character of eating out.
The different rooms were decorated according to the light-feminine, dark-masculine code. The ladies' tea room at the front was white, silver, and rose; the general lunch room at the back was paneled in oak and gray canvas and was probably quite dark except in the middle, where light fell from the top-lit gallery above; that was decorated in pink, white, and gray on the theme of a rose bower.
The curious structure in the front tea room was a rectilinear framework of wood with an elaborate wrought-iron flower stand on top of it and a circular wrought iron corona above that. It is not easy to give it a name; it was an open cage in which four customers could sit, and as such it suggests the interplay, once again, of private and public. It realized in wood the boundaries that people would bring with them and across which they would move psychologically when enjoying themselves in a public place.
The vaulted room upstairs was called the Salon de Luxe. It was a white, intimate, richly decorated room such as tea-room work had not required from the Mackintoshes before. There was a long window in the outer wall, with the double doors facing it.
One side wall contained the fireplace, and the other a gesso panel by Macdonald on a sad theme by Rossetti, 0 Ye, All Ye That Walk in Willowwood. The dado was upholstered in silk and the fixed seating in purple velvet.
A frieze of colored glass, mirror glass, and decorative leading ran around the room, culminating in the virtuoso display of the double doors. A chandelier of almost myriad colored-glass balls hung over silver tables and silver chairs; eight of the chairs were high-backed and were used at the central tables, forming another kind of enclosure.
The luxury of this room can be understood in terms of the Mackintoshes' stylistic development. From 1900 onwards their interiors — which were either for private houses, tea rooms, or exhibitions — followed a pattern.
Style and Luxury
The Mackintoshes would develop a particular style in domestic work and then apply it to tea rooms and exhibitions. The spare white interior with spots of color was developed at 120 Mains Street and then applied to the Ladies' Luncheon Room at Ingram Street and to the room setting exhibited with the Vienna Secession in 1900.
A more colorful and luxurious style was developed in their designs for the House for an Art Lover competition (1900-1901), in 14 Kingsborough Gardens (1901-2), and in the music salon for Fritz Warndorfer (1902-3), and applied to the Rose Boudoir exhibited in Turin in 1902 and to the Willow Tea Rooms.
The Salon de Luxe is the most substantial surviving evidence of this second, luxurious phase. The luxury also makes sense in terms of the building type. It would have been too great, perhaps, for a domestic setting. Even in their House for an Art Lover designs, the Mackintoshes did not propose anything so enclosed, elaborate, and self-conscious.
But in public places of refreshment, fantasy and overstatement can be appropriate. In the Salon de Luxe they created a fantasy for afternoon tea. It can be seen, perhaps, as a commercial version of the idea, more prevalent in Europe than in Britain, of the room as a work of art — the idea that the architect or designer should control all the details of an interior in the name of artistic unity.
The Willow Tea Rooms were opened on October 29, 1903, and were acclaimed in the local papers. The Evening News (Glasgow) reported that the city had plenty of tea rooms that were "plainly comfortable" or "quaintly or daintily artistic," but "until the opening of Miss Cranston's new establishment in Sauchieball Street today the acme of originality had not been reached."
The Bailie, Glasgow's fashionable weekly, described the Salon de Luxe as "simply a marvel of the art of the upholsterer and decorator." The public was impressed. A little over a year later Macdonald wrote to Hermann Muthesius that "the whole town is getting covered with imitations of Mackintosh tea rooms, Mackintosh shops, Mackintosh furniture etc. — it is too funny."
The opening of the Willow Tea Rooms marked the end of an important phase in the Mackintoshes' tea-room work. Six more jobs were to come, spread over the next thirteen years, but they were of a different character.
Alan Crawford is a freelance writer and consultant in the field of architectural history. His publications include By Hammer and Hand: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Birmingham. Wendy Kaplan is curator of the Wolfsonian, Miami Beach.
This article is excerpted from Charles Rennie Mackintosh, copyright © 1996, available from Abbeville Press and Amazon.com.
The Salon de Luxe in the Willow Tea Rooms.
Photo: "Dekorative Kunst" (April 1905): 260
A section through the Willow Tea Rooms, looking east.
Image: Liam Southwood and Bronwen Thomas
The Dug-Out by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the Willow Tea Rooms: West Wall of the Staircase and Vestibule, 1917. Pencil and watercolor, 15-13/16 by 30-1/8 inches (40.2 by 76.5 centimeters).
Photo: Glasgow School of Art
Detail of the Salon de Luxe, Willow Tea Rooms, showing Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's gesso panel "O Ye, All Ye that Walk in Willowwood.
Photo: T. and R. Annan Ltd., 1903
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's "O Ye, All Ye that Walk in Willowwood, 1903. For the Salon de Luxe, Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow. Painted gesso on hessian, set with glass beads. 64-3/4 by 23 inches (164.5 by 58.4 centimeters).
Photo: Glasgow Museum
Clock, 1903, for the Willow Tea Rooms. Oak, stained dark, with polished-steel face, brass numerals, metal and colored-glass insets, and glazed door, 74-1/8 by 27-13/16 by 6-7/16 inches (188.3 by 70.6 by 16.4 centimeters).
Photo: Glasgow Museum
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, edited by Wendy Kaplan, published by Abbeville Press. Cover image: Order-Desk Chair, 1904. For the Willow Tea Rooms. Oak, ebonized, reupholstered with horsehair, 46-9/16 by 37 by 16-1/2 inches (118.2 by 94 by 42 centimeters).
Image: Glasgow School of Art
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