Simpson & Brown has applied dedication and painstaking detail to recreate a masterpiece – and bring it to the modern world
Glasgow has a difficult recent relationship with its Mackintosh masterpieces. With the now established quadrennial ritualistic burning of the Art School and Hill House currently wrapped in ‘architectural’ mesh, the Mackintosh at The Willow project provides a timely opportunity to explore, experience and immerse oneself in a Mackintosh original as it was intended to be used. Simpson & Brown has taken a painstaking and archaeological approach, using archive drawings, documentation, artefact and photography to restore the interiors to those designed by Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald.
The vital role of women in this project does not start and end with Macdonald. Kate Cranston, who commissioned the original tea room, and Celia Sinclair, who bought the building and created the Willow Tea Rooms Trust, were both strong, entrepreneurial, Glaswegian women who understood the power and potential of design to be socially transformative.
The tea room is run in collaboration with the Prince’s Foundation; giving local young adults an opportunity for skills development and employment, with this timeless example of exceptional design inspiring consideration and dedication on the part of all who now work there.
The emerging social, cultural and economic empowerment of women at the turn of the 20th century created a demand for different types of urban social space that could meet the needs of both sexes. These themes are consistently applied and curated within the tea rooms through the application of design motifs, colour and finish: white identifies feminine, black masculine; the decorated and undecorated, control of light and shadow. Artificial light was very much a novelty in 1903 so a light bulb was not a banal thing to be concealed by something more visually pleasing but an object to be celebrated and flaunted. Here they are re-introduced as intended; as bold distinct objects carefully placed in the space and volume. Any embellishment to the lighting is provided by glass ornamentation that reflects and accentuates the qualities of both artificial and natural light. An example of just how meticulous Simpson & Brown’s restoration is can be seen in its recreation of the size and consistency of the bubbles found in the glass beads used in the ornamental light fittings.
This restoration demonstrates an unflinching commitment from architect and client to re-animate the craft, consideration and beauty that Mackintosh and MacDonald had explored through their progressive approach to Art Nouveau and the emerging modern movement. This is clearly apparent in the immaculately restored Salon De Luxe where a pristine recreation of MacDonald’s Gesso panel provides a focal point at one end of the barrel-vaulted space. The use of mirrors in this room accentuates and plays with the natural light from the curved bay that overlooks Sauchiehall Street and allows you to be subtly teased and intrigued by the actions and behaviour of the other diners.
Simpson & Brown’s renovation of the neighbouring building is a considered introduction of contemporary architecture and design that uses shared vertical circulation to stitch the buildings together. Inspired by the lightwells and courtyards found in the deep plans of Glasgow’s original city centre buildings, an interpretation centre, educational facilities, conference rooms and gift shop are intelligently woven around a four-storey void that culminates in a new roof terrace. A white glazed brick extension to 215 Sauchiehall Street is an expertly crafted composition of textured and perforated masonry. A glazed corner unit protruding from the extension invites visual engagement with the Mackintosh designed chimney at the rear of Number 217.
Simpson & Brown has a growing reputation for contemporary design alongside restoration and conservation. This project perfectly articulates its skill at delivering both and demonstrates how an inspired client, a talented and meticulous architect and a deep sense of social responsibility can produce exceptional design.