Mackintosh at the Willow
The famous Tea Rooms at Mackintosh at the Willow first opened in 1903 and are of huge importance to Glasgow’s architectural and cultural heritage. They are the only surviving tea Rooms designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for local entrepreneur and patron Miss Kate Cranston and a week before the fire that destroyed his Glasgow School of Art, the 150th anniversary of the designer’s birth was celebrated with a preview of the £10m restoration of the Willow Tea Rooms.
While the art school was seen by experts as the finest achievement of Glasgow’s best-known and visionary architect, many of the public will view the tea rooms as the place that defined the Mackintosh style.
The original 1903 Willow Tea Rooms were designed in their entirety by Mackintosh, who had total control inside and out. He remodelled the exterior of the 1860s tenement block and oversaw the interior decorative elements, right down to the design of the cutlery and the uniform of the waitresses. However, as fashions changed Mackintosh’s Sauchiehall Street tea rooms underwent various transformations, including being hidden behind the bridal wear of a department store. There were various attempts to revive the rooms and restore them to their former glory but four years ago the building was up for sale and its future looked bleak.
Glasgow businesswoman Celia Sinclair then made it her mission to bring the tea rooms back to life.
“I really didn’t want to lose the Willow Tea Rooms,” Celia said. “I remember going in there as a little girl and thought it was a magical place. We’ve lost so much of our heritage that I didn’t want to see this going. I thought ‘I have to do something’ and so I did.”
Celia, who made her money in commercial property, bought the building and set up a charitable trust to own and restore it. She then embarked on an effort to raise £10m, including £3.5m from heritage lottery funds, and organise a total renovation of the tea rooms before the Mackintosh 150 celebrations in June 2018.
For Celia and the expert panel she assembled, every element of the restoration had to be exactly as Mackintosh had intended. All of the furniture, including the famous high-backed chairs, have been hand-made in the same way it would have originally, using the methods that would have been used at the time. Old black-and-white photographs were studied to ensure the panelling, the chandelier, the carpets and the drapes were all recreated exactly as they had been in 1903.
Inside the tea rooms, 400 pieces of furniture have been recreated by specialists such as bespoke cabinet maker Kelvin Murray. The size, proportions and material had to be exactly that of the originals, examples of which are kept at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.
The original tea rooms had three sections and they have all been fully restored.
The Salon de Luxe was the best preserved of all the rooms but some of its main features needed to be recreated. When it opened the salon had a sculptural relief by Mackintosh’s wife, renowned artist Margaret Macdonald, as its centrepiece. Macdonald’s original Gesso panel survives and is now preserved in Glasgow’s Kelvin grove art gallery and museum. Celia persuaded artists Dai and Jenny Vaughan to come out of retirement to take on the job of recreating it.
Another ambitious project was making two enormous chandeliers to hang in the salon. The chandelier design is mathematically complex and they have only had one black-and-white photo to work from. In Edinburgh, Ingrid Phillips had the responsibility of making the 200 solid glass shapes that form the key elements of the chandeliers – the solid glass is full of bubbles or “seeds” that reflect the light.
Recreating some parts of the tea room required detective work. Celia says they discovered that the seats at the back were covered in purple velvet so they tracked down the material via Margaret Macdonald’s work basket and then found the same material in Italy and the exact shade of off-white paint for the walls was found by analysis of fragments of existing paint within the building.
Following their renovation, the Tea Rooms reopened in September 2018.
For more than 40 years, Character Joinery has built up a packed portfolio of projects, including work for the Buzzworks Group. One of Character Joinery’s biggest clients is the Prince’s Foundation who commissioned Character Joinery Director, Kelvin Murray to design and build the restaurant interiors to the newly refurbished Ballater railway station.
In addition, the company furnished the new Highland Games Centre at Braemar, which was officially opened on the 1st of September by HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
More recently Character Joinery has been involved with a scheme for the Mackintosh at the Willow tearooms in Glasgow. The site was opened by Prince Charles and the scheme became the subject of a BBC documentary.
Character Joinery won the commission to build the iconic salon deluxe furniture and the famous curved lattice order chair. The project lasted over approximately eight months and involved intense study and groundwork to get the project started.
Character Joinery Director, Kelvin Murray, said:
“To be involved in such an important piece of Glasgow history was such an honour. To re-create exact replicas of the furniture and finishes took an enormous amount of research for myself and the team. The guys were totally in the moment and fully respected and understood the magnitude and importance of the project we had undertaken. It was such a journey for everyone involved and so rewarding when it was accomplished. On a personal note, it was so thrilling to work alongside all the experts and other specialist craftspeople on the project.”