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Charles Rennie MacKintosh: Scottish renegade of the Art Nouveau movement
The innovative designs of Scottish architect Charles Rennie MacKintosh stood at the gateway of Art Nouveau in their “free” style and decorative elements as expressed in metalwork, stained-glass, furniture, and lighting design. MacKintosh’s preferences, like those of the Art Nouveau designers and those of Modernist movements also, underscored a look forward as opposed to Victorian Revivalism that looked backward and replicated design that worked in in previous ages. Yet, MacKintosh respected aesthetics of the past and integrated in his designs the Scottish vernacular that mimicked the stalwart simplicity of Scottish highland structures and borrowed from Celtic patterns. MacKintosh was also influenced as were other Art Nouveau designers by Japanese style that had permeated since its popularity with the Victorians.
MacKintosh was equally innovative as a designer in his collaboration with his own relatives in articulating a MacKintosh style; his wife, artist Margaret MacDonald, worked closely with him in her work as in for example the gesso panels as seen in many of the MacKintosh designed tearooms that once stood in Glasgow, Scotland. Along with Margaret’s sister Frances and her husband Herbert McNair, the group became known as the “Glasgow Four.” Together they designed paintings, illustrations, textiles, iron and glass work, wall murals and more.
Although Art Nouveau and related styles lean heavily on the use of curvilinear forms, and certainly we see this is some of MacKintosh’s designed ironwork, stained glass or illustration (hence, the ubiquitous MacKintosh rose), MacKintosh frequently incorporated into his design geometric and linear forms that branded his aesthetic: ladder rung chairs with exaggerated back height and tall, long rectangular windows or stained glass panels, all emphasizing vertical space. We even have the MacKintosh font with its narrow width and railed letters.
Most of MacKintosh’s architectural work was of course in Glasgow, the most extensive and well-known of which was the Glasgow School of Art built between 1899 and 1909. He also designed Glasgow’s Queen’s Cross Church, the Cranston Tearooms and the Glasgow Herald building, or “The Lighthouse” as it is known. MacKintosh further distinguished himself in the design of Hill House in Scotland, and this became almost as well-known as his work at GSA. He also drafted designs for other structures that were never constructed like the “Haus eines Kunstfreundes,” the Art Lover’s House, built after his death.
MacKintosh’s designs were feminine but not sensual or undulating like those of the continental Art Nouveau . He incorporated into his works many pale and pastel colors like pink, amethyst, and lilac but utilized as well contrasts with dramatic hues in black, white and silver,. Commonly found in his designs are floral inspired motifs and also the use of sloping and cascading lines. Notable in the design of GSA are an asymmetrical entrance façade with a curved pediment and multi-paned windows on either side of the front door set amongst sandstone bricks and ironwork both curved and linear, with some flower and leaf iron ornamentation. In contrast to the sandstone exterior, the college library is ensconced in dark wood, underscoring the effect of light streaming in from windows. Vertical trim and rectilinear shapes dot the room, from ornamented paneling on the balcony, to the geometrically-shaped hanging pendant lamps, to the table leg ornamentation.