Sitting pretty

10th September 2004 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Anne Wallace explains how this Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair can be a seat of learning

Charles Rennie Mackintosh 1868-1928

Mackintosh trained as an architect, but was also a designer and painter.

Together with friends he had met at art school, he formed the "Spook School" which made highly decorative, sinuous art and artefacts. In 1901 he was appointed architect to Honeyman and Keppie and was responsible for, among other buildings, the Glasgow School of Art. He spent his final years in the south of France painting delicate watercolours.

When is a chair not a chair? Does it always have four legs, a back, arms? And what about materials: what are the most comfortableuncomfortable fabrics? All of these questions can be answered using this Mackintosh chair as a starting point.

This high-back chair was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and made of oak, a wood popular with the Arts and Crafts movement of the time. This was an aesthetic movement of the late 19th and early 20th-century which promoted good design and craftsmanship and which was mainly concerned with the decorative arts. It is stained dark, as was the fashion, and has modern horsehair upholstery. Mackintosh was well known for designing furniture for particular places to complement the interior. There was generally a contrast of light, painted furniture against a dark background or dark furniture against a light background.

The controversial high back incorporates an oval cut-out, far above the reach of any possible head. Each slat has Mackintosh's trademark incised decoration of tiny squares. Two strong back slats run to the bottom rail, secured on the way by screws.

Some criticism has been levelled at Mackintosh for the design of this chair. It is not comfortable, the high back forcing the body into an unnaturally straight position. Is it possible that this could have been part of the design brief to discourage customers lingering too long over a cup of tea in the tearoom for which it was designed?

It is also said to be wobbly. However, a more serious criticism of Mackintosh was that his designs were very difficult to construct. The budget dictated that he could not use skilled craftsmen and so the chairs were not always built to the highest standards. Complaints about their heaviness and general unwieldiness were common but the dramatic impact of the chairs within their integrated environment remains unchallenged. The chair has become iconic and reproductions are still produced, the most successful comes from the Italian company Cassina. Cassina has exclusive access to all the prototypes, drawings, sketches and other documents.

Today, these are carefully studied to recreate Mackintosh's designs.

The distinctive high-back chair was designed by Mackintosh for Miss Cranston's tearoom in 1900. Kate Cranston introduced her innovative tearooms to Glasgow in the late 19th-century. It was her wish to provide ordinary Glaswegians with luxurious surroundings in which the interior, furniture and even the waitresses' uniforms created a whole, integrated look.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect whose designs perfectly matched Miss Cranston's aspirations, was the obvious choice to design such tearooms. He had a reputation as a maverick, despising the heavy, cluttered interiors and dark furniture of the time in favour of a light, airy mood.

The chairs he designed for the space represented the focal point of the room. The spaces themselves were fluid and delicate forms and at other times severely geometric. The high back chair first appeared in the lunch room where it helped create and define intimate spaces.

Chairs are everywhere. We all use them, in the classroom or staffroom, at home, in restaurants and cinemas. They are an important part of daily life.

As such, they are also a good way for children of all ages to start thinking about design. It is particularly important in this age of consumerism that children acquire the confidence to distinguish good from bad design. If they as adult consumers are content to put up with inferior design then that is what they will get. We as educators have a responsibility to equip pupils with the skills to make informed decisions.

Crucially, design is about form and function - how does something look and does it fulfil the needs of the client? Different chairs perform different functions: think of the grandeur of a throne compared with the functionality of a dentist's chair.

Designers begin with a brief - a statement detailing the design problem, the client and their needs. From this begins the design process, the steps in imagining, planning and communicating a solution to a problem. This can also include the production of the object. In Mackintosh's case the brief was clear: to design dining chairs that would sit comfortably in their environment and lend a dramatic counterpoint to the interior. Comfort may not have been part of the brief. The process would have begun with drawing; many of Mackintosh's drawings remain. Pupils should be encouraged to sketch as many ideas as possible; designers discard much more than they keep.

Anne Wallace is education officer, Glasgow Museums

Lesson ideas

FS

Use the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a starting point for a discussion about chairs. Too hard? Too high? Bring in different chairs and allow children to sit on them and give their views on comfort and how they look. Discuss basic materials such as wood, metal, and so on.

This is very much about talking and listening, expressing opinions.

KS1

Have the children think about what "product" means by making a collage using magazines that cover a range of designed products, such as furniture, lighting and kitchen utensils.

Bring a range of chairs into the classroom from around the school and talk about their design. Make a form to complete asking about materials, shape and ergonomics, before trying the chairs for comfort and assessing their durability.

KS3

Encourage pupils to think about good and bad design to promote critical thinking. Make a list of their favourite designed object - why they like it, the strengths of its form and function - and a designed object they don't like, either because of the way it looks or the way it performs. What products are generally regarded as design successes and why (ie, the Dyson vacuum cleaner)?

KS4

Set up a chair challenge. Pupils work in groups of four to create a chair made from newspaper spills. The chair must be able to take the weight of the lightest pupil.

KS5

Pupils of this age can start exploring the spatial relationship between chairs and their environments. A digital camera could be used to photograph a range of chairs in restaurants and bars. Observe how they interact with the space.

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