Architect Spotlight: Charles Rennie Macintosh
We look at the life and work of one of Scotland’s most famous architects.
Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: March 2019
Life & Work
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, like many architects and designers, was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. Since his death, however, he’s become an icon of the Art Nouveau and Secession movements. Born in Glasgow in 1868, Macintosh showed great artistic promise from a relatively early age. He complimented an architectural apprenticeship with evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, where he won numerous prizes.
Though widely read, Macintosh spent most of his life in Glasgow. He was inspired by the city’s heavy shipbuilding and engineering industries, as well as its exposure to the Japanese navy and culture. In particular, he admired the simplicity of Japanese design. Macintosh also included cutting-edge technology in his designs, such as the hydro-pneumatic lift; he was interested in using modern ideas and functional, practical designs that could be applied to the masses of society, not the select few.
Famous Macintosh Buildings
Macintosh’s most famed work is probably the Glasgow School of Art. One of Glasgow’s landmarks, it has been plagued with bad luck in recent years – first with a devastating fire in 2014, and then again in 2018 just as the repairs were coming to a close.
Mackintosh also designed Queen’s Cross Church, the Willow Tea Rooms (for which he designed not only the interior and exterior of the building but the cutlery, furniture and waitress’s dresses) and Scotland Street School. His motif, the ‘Macintosh rose’, exemplifies his style of contrasting strong right angles with floral motifs.
Scotland Street School, from Wikipedia
Life & Legacy
Macintosh worked closely with his wife, Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances Macdonald and Frances’ husband Herbert MacNair, at the Glasgow School of Art. They were known as the ‘Glasgow Four’ and were prominent figures in the ‘Glasgow Style’. Macintosh was popular in Europe: when he and Macdonald visited Vienna in 1900 they were transported through the city on a flower-strewn cart! Europeans admired Mackintosh and Macdonald’s clean, white interior designs which they complemented with bright friezes and Mackintosh’s high-backed chairs.
Mackintosh was so well-respected, in fact, that his work inspired Gustav Klimt’s famous oil painting The Kiss! Back in Victorian Scotland, however, the Secessionist designs were met with confusion. Mackintosh relied on a handful of patrons during his career and felt his work did not get due recognition in Britain.
Disenchanted with Glasgow, Macintosh and Macdonald moved to London in 1914 with plans to work on artists’ studios. Unfortunately their arrival coincided with the outbreak of World War I. The couple moved to Suffolk and then to the South of France, where Macintosh spent most of his time painting watercolours. Illness forced him to return to England, and he died in London aged 60 in 1928.
In the decades since his death, Macintosh’s work has achieved the status he believed he deserved. He is now one of Scotland’s most famous designers and revered as a pioneer of the Art Nouveau and Secession movements. You can read about Macintosh’s life and work at the Charles Rennie Macintosh Society.
The Mackintosh House, with frieze by Margaret Macdonald, from BBC.co.uk