Mackintosh Down To A Tea

From chairs to china, these tea rooms in Glasgow look just as they did when Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed them for a prominent temperance campaigner in 1903. Sobering to think they were in the sorriest state until recently and saving them entailed the most painstaking detective work. 

 ‘But where there’s a Willow to restore there is a way.’

Early in his career, in 1896, Mackintosh met Catherine Cranston, an entrepreneurial local business woman who was the daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant and a strong believer in temperance. 

The temperance movement was becoming increasingly popular in Glasgow at the turn of the century and Miss Cranston had conceived the idea of a series of ‘art tearooms’, venues where people could meet to relax and enjoy non-alcoholic refreshments in a variety of different ‘rooms’ within the same building.


Mackintosh was engaged to design the wall murals of her new Buchanan street tearooms in 1896. The tearooms had been built by George Washington Browne of Edinburgh, with interiors and furnishings being designed by George Walton. Mackintosh designed stencilled friezes depicting opposing pairs of elongated female figures surrounded by roses for the ladies’ tearoom, the luncheon room and the smokers’ gallery.

 In 1898, his next commission for the existing Argyle Street tearooms saw the design roles reversed, with Mackintosh designing the furniture and interiors, and Walton designing wall murals. This was to see the first appearance of Mackintosh’s trademark high-backed chair design. 

This later led to the commission to design completely the proposed new tearooms in Sauchiehall Street in 1903. For the first time, Mackintosh was given responsibility for not only the interior design and furniture, but also for the full detail of the internal layout and exterior architectural treatment. The resultant building came to be known as the Willow Tearooms and is best known and most important work that Mackintosh undertook for Miss Cranston. 

The location selected by Miss Cranston for The Willow Tearooms was a four- storey former warehouse building on a narrow infill urban site on the south side of Sauchiehall Street.

Within the existing structure, Mackintosh designed a range of spaces with different functions and décor for the Glasgow patrons to enjoy. There was a ladies’ room, general lunch room, ‘Room de Luxe’ which was a more exclusive ladies’ room overlooking the street and lastly a smoking room for the men. 

The design concept foresaw a place for the ladies to meet their friends, and for the men to use on their breaks from office work- an oasis in the city centre. 

The decoration of the different rooms was themed: light for feminine, dark for masculine. The ladies’ tea room at the front was white, silver, and rose: the general lunch room at the back was panelled in oak and grey canvas, and the top-lit tea gallery above was pink, white and grey. In addition to designing the internal architectural alterations and a new external façade, in collaboration with his wife Margaret, Mackintosh designed almost every other aspect of the tearooms, including the interior design, furniture, cutlery, menus and even the waitress’ uniforms. 


The Room de Luxe was the most extravagant of the rooms that Mackintosh created and proved to be the tearoom’ main attraction. Described at the time as a ‘fantasy for afternoon tea’,the room was intimate and richly decorated. It featured a sumptuous colour scheme of grey, purple and white, featuring a soft grey carpet and silver painted tables with high- backed chairs. The walls were painted a simple white, with a high- level frieze coloured, mirrored and leaded glass panels.

Following the death of her husband, Miss Cranston sold her business. The Willow Tearooms continued in use under a new name until they were incorporated into Daly’s department store in 1929. However, parts of the Tearoom began closing, with the final room, Room de Luxe which closed around the start of the 1980’s.

Extensive restoration work was carried out during 2014-2018 was budgeted at £10 million and was funded by a mixture of private and grant money including The Heritage Lottery Fund. The restoration included extensive re-creation of mackintosh’s interior schemes and decorative elements lost over the years. Large quantities of furniture to Mackintosh’s designs have also been reproduced for use in the various part of the Tea Room.

One of the most celebrated spaces in the building, the Room de Luxe has been fully restored and included a suite of specially commissioned furniture, re-created chandeliers, gesso panels and carpets. 

The Mackintosh Tea Room, is culturally significant as a venue in Glasgow where women first began to socialise outside the home and is once again used for its original purpose. 


Cara MulroyComment