I have always found the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to be among the most subtly inspiring and innovative works that I have seen. Before I experienced the take-your-breath-away effect of seeing the whole of a Willow Tea room installed in a Mackintosh exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1996, I was already drawn to individual elongated chairs, textiles and other design objects. Many of these have a stylized naturalism with a muted pale palette, some of which appeared as a result of Mackintosh’s collaboration with his wife, Mary MacDonald, and her sister May, who designed and produced embroidered textiles. The resulting whole environments used nature in a more angled way than the art nouveau movement that was blossoming out from Paris. They drew beauty sometimes from unexpected motifs: such as thistles, the symbol of Scotland, their home.
In the commission for Catherine Cranston’s Argyle Street Tearooms, for which this chair was made, Mackintosh collaborated with the architect George Walton, who designed the more stationary elements such as paneling, screens, billiard tables, fireplaces, wall and ceiling decorations and some electric light fittings. Mackintosh designed the furniture, including for the smoking and billiards rooms. The tall chairs and thin-lined aesthetic he chose for the main tea rooms he designed for this and the Willow Tearooms in Glasgow, Scotland, reflected decorum. Ladies in daytime long dresses sat up straight to take their tea, and these chairs gave them elegant posture and provided a certain formality to rooms that were otherwise more casual than in the fancy late Victorian gilded and scrolled tea rooms. This chair is very different. It is not for the main tea room, but rather for the smoking and billiards rooms. Those would have been frequented by men, probably smoking cigars, who would be able to be a bit more casual than a high back would allow. The low backed chairs had arm rests to support raised cigars; the low height let smoke escape. There is stylization too: the seats have recessed sitting spots, in demi-lune form like the shape of the skirt. The rectilinear profile of the sides made the chairs fit in with the architectural design full of straight lines and are frequently seen up against the walls, much as furniture was in the eighteenth century-the antithesis of Victorian clutter.
These chairs were influential too. A photograph of their home interiors both newly married Mackintoshes designed in 1900 shows this same model of chair. The Argyle rooms appear to have been photographed in 1897, even though they were not published until 1906 (in The Studio), whereas Mackintosh published the chairs in Modern British Domestic Architecture in 1901. The furniture firm responsible for making the chairs, Francis Smith & Son, sent many pieces to Argyle Street in 1898 and 1899, showing on-going additions to the furnishing of the rooms, which included gaming tables with stools with the demi-lune cut-outs that matched the chairs’ skirts. It was at just this time that Mackintosh’s work was shown at the Vienna Secession Exhibition in 1900, influencing the designers of the Wiener Werkstätte such as Josef Hoffmann
"Purkersdorf Sanitorium Dining Chair, Designed by Josef Hoffmann, Vienna, 1904-6,-1;1968-6-1
Box, Designed by Koloman Moser, Vienna, Silver-plated brass, 1902-5
and Koloman Moser with his combination of linearity, use of geometric ornament and a pared down aesthetic.