Mackintosh’s tea rooms were among his most cutting edge accomplishments. Unfortunately, none exist today fully intact. From 1900 to 1912, he was commissioned by Miss Catherine Cranston to design numerous tea rooms in the city of Glasgow. Probably the best known of these was the Argyle Street Tea Room, The Ingram Street Tea Rooms and The Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street. The Willow Tea Rooms exists today, although not in their original state.
New dining establishments in Britain came into vogue in the late-Victorian period. In the middle 1800’s there were very few “eating out” options for half the population. There were public houses or pubs which catered to the working class and sold almost exclusively alcoholic drinks. Then there were the exclusive “men’s clubs” which catered to an upper class clientele. There were the “dining rooms” which were long stark rooms with tables and benches and a very basic meat and potatoes kind of menu. All three were effectively closed to women. However, by the late 1800’s throughout the British Isles, there was a plethora of new dining establishments catering to a much wider clientele including women, both accompanied and unaccompanied. The term restaurant came to be used for these eateries. Also it was possible that the French word cafe was adopted around this time. It was in this environment that Catherine Cranston decided to bring the phenomenon to Glasgow. She opened her first establishment in 1878 calling them tea rooms and several others followed soon thereafter. Mackintosh’s first work for Cranston was in 1895 but not as primary designer. He was hired to design several murals for a remodeling of the Ingram Street Tea Rooms. About two years later Miss Cranston decided to enlarge and modernize her tea rooms at Argyle Street and she hired Mackintosh as interior designer. In 1900 Miss Cranston commissioned Mackintosh to design completely new interiors for her Ingram Street Tea Rooms. These interiors show the softer side of Mackintosh and indeed these were being designed at the time of his marriage to Margaret. There is no doubt that she was very influential in the overall concept.
His crowning achievement for Catherine Cranston were the Willow Tea Rooms at Sauchiehall Street. Here, Mackintosh transformed not only an empty four story interior space but also the exterior of a Victorian row house. The facade was stripped of its Victorian pretensions and given deep window reveals with no moldings and shallow sensual curves. It was an architectural revelation for Glasgow and the tea rooms became an overnight success for Miss Cranston.
Over the years Mackintosh would do more work for Catherine Cranston. Even in his very lean times she did not forsake him. Today Glasgow Museums is attempting to bring some of the tea rooms back to life. In 1993 work began on the reconstruction of the Ladies Luncheon Room at the Ingram Street Tea Room. This reconstruction toured several venues in the United States in 1996 and renewed interest in the Mackintosh story. The reconstruction teams have also restored the Cloister Room and The Chinese Room, both of which were originally a part of Ingram Street Tea Rooms. The Oak Room is still undergoing restoration.