Meet Charles Rennie MacIntosh

In Scotland, we stayed in Ayr, a seaside town about 45 minutes from Glasgow. We went through Glasgow a few times at night, unimpressed by what felt like a dreary, lower-end city (especially compared to Edinburgh).

The Barras, a Glasgow flea market so named because merchants would haul their wares in wheel barrows ('barras)

But we gave it another shot on a sunny Saturday. I am very happy we did, because I found that beauty is certainly present in Glasgow–just less apparent, tucked away, maybe more utilitarian and lived-in.

And there's an interesting blend of old and new in Glasgow.

Anchoring Glasgow’s battered beauty is the work of Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

Afternoon sun hitting the western face of the Glasgow School of Art, with its huge windows

I have been a bit obsessed with MacIntosh, an artist/designer/architect from the turn of the 20th century, since my parents’ visit to Scotland in 2007.

While underappreciated much of his life, MacIntosh was a pioneer of Art Nouveau design at a time when Victorianism was the dominant style. In contrast (probably even in reaction) to the opulence and self-indulgence of Victorianism, MacIntosh’s work is clean and uncluttered, yet still detailed in a way that has you seeing the same space differently each time you look.

Love this little nook in the MacIntosh House for an Art Lover

MacIntosh’s work–his architecture, furniture, textiles, stained glass, even fonts–is unequivocally beautiful.

A MacIntosh font on the sign for The Willow Tearoom (he designed the tea room, too)

There is also a bit of mystery to MacIntosh’s design choices. He did not write about his designs or spend much time explaining them. Odd little leafy motifs, curious marks in a stairwell–we don’t know what these things mean. We can only guess. As an observer, you become engaged in the spaces, trying to decipher these secret elements.

These wrought iron flourishes on the windows of the School of Art portray a rose in various stages of opening (apparently)

I was also taken with his play on light and dark.

Bright hallway in the School of Art (picture by Eric Thornburn, The Glasgow Picture Library)

His tendency to cramp you into dark, tight spaces before flooding you with light recalls for me the drama of the Scottish Highlands.

Teeny house tucked into a u-shaped valley in the Highlands

But under the beauty, the detail and drama, there is also a courage in MacIntosh that I admire so much–a sureness, in a way. MacIntosh subverted the  pattern of Victorianism and contributed something completely new.

In 1897, MacIntosh won a contest to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. He was 27. Even then his distinctive style was evident, as if the MacIntosh aesthetic was something he was just born with. Talk about self-styled.

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3 responses to “Meet Charles Rennie MacIntosh

  1. Pingback: Flash Fall, Bye-bye Summer! « the self-styled life·

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