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If “modern design” had a signature color, it would probably be white, but when and where did it all begin? I’ve been reading a lot lately about the talented designer, Syrie Maugham, who is actually credited with creating the first all-white room in the 1930s. However, she was not the first devotee of the iconic white room. In the world of design, no idea, trend or revelation exists without lineage. So Syrie’s white room actually had a precursor. The much overlooked architect, furniture designer and interior designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928), created white rooms decades earlier. Additionally, Mackintosh had the first vision of combining architecture, furniture and art in a holistic interior design aesthetic – often bathed in white. Sounds decidedly modern, doesn’t it?
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, top right, Scottish architect, artist, and furniture and interior designer, influenced the development of the Modern movement. He was a central figure in the development of integrated art-architecture at the turn of the 20th century. Photographed circa 1890 with fellow Glasgow School of Art students.
In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, interiors were dark and somber, crammed to their turrets with over-stuffed sofas and chairs, heavy pattern upon pattern, and cluttered with all manner of bric á brac and collectibles. Such were the rooms that a young Mackintosh must have frequented – with dismay. For while he was born a Victorian, he was, in fact, a Modernist. Mackintosh envisioned a completely new direction and sought throughout his career to take interior design to the level of high art. What I find most remarkable is that Mackintosh seems to reinvent interior design, incorporating new and distinctly modern ideas through scale, proportion and light.
120 Mains Street, Glasgow, photographed in 1900. It was here that Mackintosh and his wife, artist Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh designed their first all-white drawing room-studio. Appointed in all-white walls, with furniture sparsely arranged on light carpeting and large windows covered in natural muslin, this room is as modern today as it was revolutionary at the time. Mackintosh regarded Japanese design as a fresh source of inspiration, free of the European historical references used by his contemporaries, particularly the functional quality of an open plan.
In the 1970’s The University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery meticulously reconstructed “The Mackintosh House,” a re-assemblage of Mackintosh’s principal rooms of furniture and fittings from the family’s first home at 120 Mains Street and from 6 Florentine Terrace, their second residence. The color photography below is eye-opening proof of the impact of white interiors and the bold departure from a heavy Victorian past.
The reassembled Mackintosh drawing room in living color. The two cushions flanking the fireplace were placed there for the family’s two Persian cats. I suspect feline behavior has not changed since the turn of the last century. Then as now, cats sleep where they please.
The drawing room also contained this notable desk and chair (shown above in a 1900 photograph). This marks Mackintosh’s first use of white enamel on his iconic high-backed chairs. Mackintosh’s cabinetwork has always intrigued me, as forms are often bold and rectilinear, but have a visual lightness due to perfect-pitch scale and proportion. Note the use of organic decoration on the desk, both in carving and the decorative center panels in copper repouseé (probably by Margaret), which gives the piece a sense of delicacy.
While Mackintosh respected some of the principals of the Arts and Crafts community, final expression was his primary goal, and not compliance with a school of thought. This is one of the reasons he chose to paint some of his early pieces: it concealed any indication of the material and construction underneath and put full emphasis on the aesthetic.
Two cabinets flanking the drawing room fireplace show a further refining of his aesthetic, accentuated with stylized organic detail and subtle curves. Again, no indication of cabinetwork is shown. When the doors are open the true silhouette of the piece is finally revealed: a painted silver surface complete with stylized female forms holding large roses, suggesting the flowing lines of a hanging Japanese kimono. Note that the case is 60-inches high, shoulder height for those without a tape measure handy, further demonstrating Mackintosh’s admiration for the Japanese aesthetic.
Mackintosh designed Hill House for the publisher Walter Blackie in 1902 – 1904. As this was to be a “dwelling house,” he took the radical approach of designing the interior spaces first, which dictated the exterior, the opposite path of most architects. Mackintosh designed the furniture and other fixtures; he was one of the first proponents of integrated art-architecture. His desire for aesthetic harmony even extended to prescribing the color of cut flowers that the Blackie’s might place on a table in the living room, so as not to clash with the rest of the decor.
Above, two views of The White Bedroom at Hill House. A recurring technique in Mackintosh interiors was his use of ebonized chairs as visual punctuation, often set against white walls for greater impact. Note the “pierced square” motif in the cabinet doors, chair back, and the lower shelf of the center table.
In the first floor drawing room of Hill House all of the built-in furniture is painted white with subtle touches of pale colors, while the movable furniture is ebonized. The pierced square is a motif Mackintosh used early in architectural and furniture decoration (as well as the pattern on the carpet). Essentially, this center table takes his pierced square motif into three dimensions, creating a cubic grid.
Mackintosh’s use of white paint, ebonized chairs and the geometric-square motif greatly influenced architects and designers on the Continent, including his friend, Josef Hoffmann, as well as Koloman Moser, founders of the Wiener Werkstatte whose work was in high demand. In fact, Mackintosh’s work was more highly regarded in Europe than in his own country of Scotland. Ironically, great artists are often under appreciated at home.
Above, Hoffman’s bedroom suite for the Max Biach residence, circa 1904, is proof of Mackintosh’s influence. Below, left and right, Hoffman’s chair designs; center: chair design in white lacquer wood by Koloman Moser.
No creative idea is without provenance and origin. The history of design sets today’s trends, ideas and innovations in motion. That’s what I love about the world of design – the exciting forward motion that’s rooted in the past. As a professional furniture designer, I am also a student and a sleuth. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is known today as an architect and furniture designer (over 400 pieces in a relatively short career). I believe the scope of his talent and larger contributions have been overlooked to the point that many consider him a mere footnote in the history of design. Ignored for the most part in his homeland during his lifetime, his longtime admirer and client, Walter Blackie said, “Only the very few saw merit in his work and the many passed him by.” Discouraged and almost destitute by the end of his life, Mackintosh retired from architecture in 1923 and, in self-imposed exile, moved to the south of France to paint. Years later, Mies Van der Rohe called him a “purifier in the field of architecture.” Given the evidence it would seem he was a purifier in the field of interior design as well. Let’s set the record straight!
John Black is a card-carrying member of the Furniture Historical Society and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.