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The International Writers Magazine: Glasgow

The Cult of Mackintosh   
John Thomson
It was the angular, high-backed chair that first drew my eye to the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was a first year arts student and my art history professor thought Mackintosh was God’s gift to early twentieth century architecture and design. A bit of a jokester too I reckoned. Why else would someone design a chair that looked so stiff and uncomfortable as I pictured the bony slats cutting into my back.


Forty years later and I’m in Glasgow visiting relatives. I squeeze in a visit to the Hunterian Art Gallery which has re-assembled Mackintosh’s early 1906 digs, a living room and a bedroom from the familial house that was later torn down. The display is breathtaking in its simplicity. The rooms are bright and spacious. Sunlight bounces off the stark white walls accentuating the open plan. The angular motif that I first saw in those famous chairs, lots of right angles and variations on the square, is repeated in the floor, the furniture and the wall decorations.  Everything is co-ordinated. A bit too co-ordinated.  I feel like I’m in a museum piece which of course I am and I wonder if Mack and his wife ever felt the same way. Probably not. I long for a piece of half-eaten toast on the dining room table or a pile of dirty clothes at the foot of those oh-so-perfect matching beds.

Nevertheless, my curiosity aroused, I pop into the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh’s reputed masterpiece. The pinnacle of his architectural career I’m told.  Finally completed in 1909 it’s a massive stone structure commanding a dominant view of the city. It looks like a castle. If Glasgow were ever under siege, I think to myself, this place could be the first line of defence. Yet there’s a delicate side to the brute. The massive north facade is interrupted by banks of geometrically massed windows giving it a lighter feel, at least on that particular side. A black iron balcony and iron railings soften its bulky face.

Inside, Mackintosh has continued the angular theme in his dropped light fixtures and leaded glass. It’s an impressive structure, one of twelve Mackintosh sites within the city the tourist board would love you to visit. Make no mistake; Mackintosh is Glasgow’s favourite son and the city isn’t shy about promoting him. He’s been immortalized, idolized and commercialized. You’ll never run out of Mackintosh memorabilia when touring Glasgow. The gift shops outnumber the tourist sites two to one. Yet for all his local fame Mackintosh’s legacy appears somewhat slight.

Music Room Sure, there are furniture manufacturers making money off his reproductions but there are no Mackintosh designed structures anywhere else in the world and only one that I know of outside Glasgow, in Northampton, England.  Decades after his death Glasgow’s favourite son was essentially forgotten and his Glasgow buildings were either being demolished or falling into disrepair. So why is he so revered today?

I find the answer at The Lighthouse, a design incubator and museum just off Buchanan Street in central Glasgow. Housed in a former newspaper building designed by Mackintosh while still a draftsman at Honeyman and Keppie, his employer at the time, The Lighthouse is filled with noteworthy toys, textiles and furnishings created by Britain’s past and current top designers. Its most prominent feature is a brick tower that Mackintosh added in 1895. A vigorous romp up the circular staircase leads to a rooftop view of the city but it’s on the third floor that the Mackintosh story comes to life. Original drawings, photographs and three dimensional models paint a picture of the man and his times.

A detailed timeline is particularly helpful. We learn young Mackintosh was a rising star with Honeyman and Keppie when he designed the Glasgow School of Art at the turn of the century. His ideas were well-received and he was a bit of a celebrity. Other projects followed. But when the young Scot struck out on his own, tastes changed and his business faltered. He and his wife Margaret retreated to London to concentrate on textile design. And when that didn’t pan out the couple eventually retired to southern France where Mackintosh renounced architecture entirely and spent the rest of his life painting watercolours. It’s a sad story.

For awhile it looked like history would turn its back on the unlucky Scot but in 1973 a non-profit society was created to maintain his buildings and recognize his accomplishments. The canonization of Mackintosh began. And that’s okay because now I know why.

It’s not just because his buildings are unique, and they are, but because they’re so damn...well... Scottish. Built to withstand the Scottish climate, they’re solid, substantial structures as opposed to those flouncy neo-classical buildings other people were building at the time. Scholars call it Scottish Baronial and it’s no secret Mackintosh championed its revival. Indeed he tried to resurrect it all by himself 

His buildings are practical too. No superfluous decoration on Mackintosh structures. He favoured detail that meant something to the building’s integrity as opposed to detail that was just tacked on. Today we call it total design. It should come as no surprise that he involved himself in the design of wall treatments, drapes and furniture that followed through on his overall vision. GSA

We’re told the Modern movement in art and design took root in the 1920’s and flourished after the Second World War. Mackintosh has been called the father of the Modernism because he believed design should reflect its purpose. In other words form follows function. It’s the mantra that has guided designers and architects for the past eighty years. But in Mackintosh’s day it wasn’t even a phrase much less a concept. It would take another 20 years for the world to catch up.  In that regard Mackintosh was a pioneer.

I went to Glasgow questioning the allure of Mackintosh and the slavish, almost cultish devotion to his memory. Having seen some of his works and reading his biography, I’m a believer. I’m a big fan of creative vigour and Mack had it in spades. His most memorable works, the buildings for which he is famous, were produced over a mere ten year period. And when architecture disappointed him, he turned to the complementary disciplines -- furniture and textile design. In this pursuit he was aided by his wife Margaret, an accomplished artist in her own right, credited with complementing her husband’s hard-edge sensibilities with a more organic, calligraphic sense of interior decoration. Her hand can be seen in the floral motifs in the Glasgow School of Art.

I arrived in Glasgow questioning Mackintosh’s relevance. I left a believer. I joined the cult. I understand why my first year prof called Mack an innovator and a pioneer.

mac chair  I’m still not sure about those straight-back chairs though. There were a couple of classics at The Lighthouse beckoning me with their svelte shape and haughty demeanour. I was sorely tempted but passed on the opportunity to sit on one for fear of attracting the Mackintosh police. And that’s too bad because The Lighthouse gift shop does not offer Mackintosh chairs for sale, at least not the kind you can put in your suitcase. Fear not, Glasgow is awash in Mackintosh napkins, coffee cups, trinkets and postcards – you name it – and I couldn’t avoid leaving Scotland with a Mackintosh souvenir, however humble, of my own.

© John Thomson October 2011

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