Modernity: The Willow Tea Rooms

Topics: Art Nouveau, Modernism, Glasgow Pages: 5 (1076 words) Published: December 13, 2014
Modernity: The Willow Tea Rooms, 1903

Diane Meyler

A desire to convince the world that “there are things more precious... more lasting than life itself” (1902) was the driving force of modernist advocate Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He has been hailed as one of the most important precursors of the Modern movement (Wilhide, 1995, 7). This was a style born of the society’s transformation through the modernization of existence. At the time, cities swelled in a spectacular urban revolution leading to generations viewing their ‘natural’ environment to be one of bricks and steel. Beyond the city, commerce and technology took control of society and made it selfconsciously cosmopolitan. It was a complicated style for a complicated age, when many contrary forces were forced to live together: the old and the new, the city and country, science and religion, the local and the cosmopolitan.

Mackintosh’s name has become synonymous with the blossoming of Art Nouveau, a style marked in the verticals of his high-backed chairs or the graphic patterning of his building-fronts. His work anticipates that purity and structural integrity now identified with modernism. The white interiors, bold handling of materials and enlightened practicality point firmly in the direction of the new design age. Inspired by nature and the traditions of Scotland, his genius was to achieve a remarkable degree of syntheses between the decorative and the structural.

His buildings are inseparable from what they contain: every element is considered in its relation to the whole. Art Nouveau upheld the idea that all the arts should work in harmony to create a total environment. The idea of ‘a total work of art’, or gesamtkunstwerk, was live. The designer became an orchestrator of every artifacts that created a room. Mackintosh’s Willow Tea Rooms, opened in 1903 in the fashionable Sauchiehall Street, were a triumph of this concept. The street name’s translation, ‘alley of the willows’, provided an evocative metaphor on which the entire work is based. Mackintosh created the architectural structure, interiors, their furnishings, controlling every

Modernity: The Willow Tea Rooms, 1903

Diane Meyler

aspect of the design down to the white uniforms and elegant menus. He stated “Modern architecture, to be real, must not be an envelope without contents,” (Wilhide, 1995, 23). Emulating Art Nouveau, he believed that all the arts should work in tandem; if the objects of everyday existence contained poetry, then the mass of people might partake of poetry, (Battersby, 1969, 21).

Modern designers looked towards honesty to nature and organic forms. Additionally, historical styles such as the curvilinear and swirling Rococo, as well as the simple and ordered art of Japan were appropriated to the modern age. Their use of asymmetry, the repetitive natural forms, the dedication to femininity, and the absence of religion are all modernist traits that are significant throughout the Willow Tea Rooms. The emergence of tea rooms was a development of the industrial expansion of Glasgow which brought enormous social change. The temperance movement was a result of increased drunkenness accompanying industrialization. There was a need for places where workers could unwind in a sober condition. Meanwhile, tea rooms provided a genteel environment for women who were now venturing out of the home unchaperoned. Such establishments as the Willow Tea Rooms catered for the needs of both sexes.

With its graphic border of chequered
squares (Image 1), windows of mirrored
glass, decorative wrought ironwork and
pristine finish, the Willow Tea Rooms
were a picture of startling modernity in
1903. Internally, without a single partition
wall, Mackintosh created three distinct
areas: the front saloon, the rear saloon
and the gallery. The skillful sequence

1. Chequered facade of the Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow

Modernity: The Willow Tea Rooms, 1903...

Bibliography: Battersby, M. (1969) Art Nouveau. Feltham: Hamlyn
Billcliffe, R
Jones, A. (1990) Charles Rennie Mackintosh. London: Studio Editions 1990
Kaplan, W., Mackintosh, C.R
Wilhide, E. (1995) The Mackintosh Style: Decor & Design. London: Pavilion.
Modernity: The Willow Tea Rooms, 1903

Exquisite Architecture and Design by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Published: 2011 (Edited: 2014)
The Willow Tea Rooms
Published: 2004 (Edited: 2010)
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