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For many tourists, to think of a “Glasgow Style” is to think of the unmistakable look of the work of architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. His much-imitated style can be seen in everything from tea-towels to jewellery but nowhere is it as complete as in the Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street.
Hired by a Miss Cranston to design the fourth and most celebrated of her chain of tearooms, Mackintosh put his talents to work on every aspect of the design from furniture and façade to the waitresses uniforms. The world famous window stylings remain unchanged to this day and though they evoke images of rural Japan, the inspiration came from right on the doorstep of the tearooms.
Sauchiehall Street means “avenue of willows” and the name inspired Mackintosh to develop the theme throughout the restaurant. Though the windows, and the style, remain in the building, the worldwide reputation Mackintosh enjoys means many of the fittings have become hugely valuable and they have been placed in Kelvingrove Art Gallery for safekeeping along with some of his other famous works.
Though considered classic today, and boasting a timeless appeal, Mackintosh’s furniture was considered cutting edge in his day. A high-backed chair in the museum is displayed alongside an elaborate Victorian chair only 10 years older and the simplicity of Mackintosh’s elegant design makes it seem futuristic in comparison.
Themes that remained consistent throughout his work can also be appreciated in the museum when a number of his works can be seen side by side. The geometric design, clean lines and trademark cut-outs are present in almost every piece, making the Scot’s work instantly recognisable.
The highlight of the museum’s collection is taken from the Willow Tearooms. A pair of panels taken from the building are the work of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald. The pair met at Glasgow School of Art and collaborated on a number of works and the delicate, flowing lines of the panels provide a fantastic example of their work.
The collection serves as a reminder of Mackintosh’s versatility, taking in furniture, panelling and drawings as well as representations of his architectural work and demonstrate why the Glaswegian became internationally famous. However, for all his fame overseas, the best of his work remains in his home city with iconic buildings such as the School of Art and Scotland Street School.
There cannot be many designers whose work can be appreciated in a working tearoom though, and the Willow Tearooms retains the look it was intended to have. The designs that made Mackintosh famous can still be enjoyed over a relaxing cuppa, even if many of the original works have become so valuable they belong in a museum.