In a partnership venture, Smith & Garratt and Charles Taylor Woodwork have just restored Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room and have delivered it to the new V&A in Dundee … to great acclaim. The Oak Room is the rhythmic, dark oak interior to a Glasgow tea room. Two stories high and roughly sixteen metres by six, it is much the largest exhibit – so big, in fact, that it had to be delivered early, allowing the rest of the Scottish Design Gallery to be assembled around it. Innovative coloured lighting casts geometric shadows, and the room is punctuated with jewel-like sparkles of stained glass. It is certainly striking, but why does it merit all this fuss?
At the turn of the last century the women’s movement was gaining strength; women had more time and were winning more freedoms. They needed places to meet and socialise – respectable places, not the traditional haunts of men or those serving alcohol – so the tea room was born. Glasgow hotel-owner Miss Catherine Cranston seized the opportunity and opened tea rooms on Ingram Street, Buchanan Street and, later, the Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street. The décor in her Crown Luncheon Room (1878) was described as exquisite. To keep ahead of her competition, she commissioned interiors by leading designers – including young artist George Walton and architect George Washington-Browne. In 1897 Walton asked a contemporary – Mackintosh – to provide stencilled friezes for the Ladies’ Tea Room, Luncheon Room and Smokers’ Gallery at Buchanan Street. These were much admired and Miss Cranston commissioned Mackintosh and his new bride – the artist Margaret MacDonald – to design an interior and furniture for the White Dining Room at Ingram Street (1900) … followed by the Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms, works to her own house, the Dutch Kitchen, Oak Room, Cloister Room and Chinese Room at Ingram Street (1906-11 … roughly coinciding with Mackintosh’s partnership in the architectural practice Honeyman Keppie & Mackintosh). These commissions made Mackintosh’s name as the enfant terrible of the international design world. A favourite quote from Hermann Muthesius in Dekorative Kunst (1905) advised that “Today any visitor to Glasgow can rest body and soul in Miss Cranston's Tea Rooms and for a few pence drink tea, have breakfast and dream that he is in fairy land”.
While Miss Cranston benefitted from ground-breaking, innovative design, Mackintosh got opportunities to test his developing theories at full scale. Themes developed around this time appear at the Glasgow School of Art (1897-1909), Windy Hill (1900-01), the design for ‘House for an Art-Lover’ (1901, not built until 1990) and the Hill House (1902-04). The Oak Room (1907) represents maturity.
Above all, the Oak Room is clever. We have been privileged to restore its components and to reconstruct it on frames representing exactly the space it occupied at Ingram Street – nothing square and with unlevel floor and ceiling. At the trial-hang we found the oak elements were 95% complete, but very distressed, broken and over-painted. Nonetheless, the space had a rhythm – like lines on a page. Once every piece was restored and re-hung, this time on bespoke aluminium frames for installation at the V&A, the presence was stronger, like music paper. Now fully assembled in the gallery – with coloured glass and three different styles of lamp throwing coloured light at the panels – the music is there, and it is complete … being inside is an immersive experience. It is hard to appreciate, now, that the space it occupied was compromised by stairs down to the basement, irregular windows, plumbing and ventilation ducts. Mackintosh’s design overcomes these. At tea-time in central Glasgow, it was a sunlit glade. That is why his reputation grows … and, yes, it’s worth the fuss ... go and feel it for yourself.