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HIGH STYLE : A Chair Ahead of Its Time

February 21, 1988|DAVID LASKER

AT A TIME when designers were in love with ornament--whether in the overstuffed, mainstream Victorian style or the avant-garde art nouveau with its whiplash botanical forms--Charles Rennie Mackintosh stood apart. The Scottish architect's philosophy was to "rid interior decoration of all pseudo-decorated superfluity."

A virtuoso equally at ease in creating cutlery, jewelry, stained glass, carpets and even gravestones, Mackintosh entered the Glasgow School of Art in 1885. Eleven years later, he won a competition to design a new building there. The published plans caused a sensation on the European continent, and he was invited to exhibit his work as far away as Moscow. Mackintosh was a man nearly a century ahead of his time, however. His works look up-to-the-minute even today; yet the Glasgow School was his first and last major commission. After designing a few tearooms and houses, he faded into obscurity, dying in 1928, virtually forgotten by his countrymen.

The popular Hill House chair, which Mackintosh designed in 1902, must have startled his contemporaries, for it was seating stripped to bare bones. The black ebonized ash-wood frame, evoking shoji screens and tatami mats, boasts a serene, Oriental quality--an effect intensified in the chair's original setting, where a white-painted master bedroom contrasted with the chair's inky color. In particular, the checkerboard grid atop the towering ladder-back structure was immensely influential. It inspired Vienna's Josef Hoffmann, another important art nouveau figure, who produced a wide-ranging line of metal-grid accessories that are themselves icons of early 20th-Century design. And such grids, on a larger scale, have become stock-in-trade among today's interior designers as a means of articulating walls, floors and ceilings.

As the chair's impractical proportions suggest, Mackintosh had scant interest in craftsmanship and construction techniques. Nor did he worry much about comfort, the plush silk seat pad notwithstanding. But as a sculptural essay about verticality, the Hill House chair remains the definitive statement even today.

The Mackintosh - estate-authorized version of the Hill House chair, reproduced by Cassina, is available for about $1,320 from Atelier International, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90069 (213) 659-9402.

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