My history hero: Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928)

Singer-songwriter Midge Ure explains why he admires a 19th/20th-century designer, architect and artist

The mahogany wooden interior of the Glasgow School of Art

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) was a Scottish architect, artist and designer – and a prominent member of the ‘Glasgow School’, a circle of influential modern artists and designers. He is best known for designing the Glasgow School of Art, which was badly damaged in a fire last year – but he also worked in interior design, furniture and textiles. In later life, he and his wife, Margaret, moved to France where he painted watercolours. He died in London.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) was a Scottish architect, artist and designer – and a prominent member of the ‘Glasgow School’, a circle of influential modern artists and designers. He is best known for designing the Glasgow School of Art, which was badly damaged in a fire last year – but he also worked in interior design, furniture and textiles. In later life, he and his wife, Margaret, moved to France where he painted watercolours. He died in London.

When did you first hear about Mackintosh?

Probably in my late teens – although I was aware of his work before I was really aware of him. The teachers never taught us about Mackintosh at school but, growing up, I just became aware of his architecture walking around my Glasgow hometown. I remember going up to the Glasgow School of Art one day to see if I could have a quick look round – but in those days they wouldn’t let you in if you weren’t a student!

What kind of person was Mackintosh?

He was obviously a very creative person, but he also believed strongly in what he was doing. You have to remember that he started out as an architect during the Victorian era when a lot of buildings, both inside and out, were rather dark and foreboding. He didn’t want that. And he wasn’t afraid to use different colours and materials, going for a daring modernist look. Indeed, his work was incredibly radical for the time, as you can tell by his distinctive high-back chair designs. He brought a whole new dynamic to every aspect of both Scottish architecture and interior design.

What made him a hero?

He had the courage of his convictions. A lot of people didn’t get his work because he so brazenly flouted Victorian convention, both in terms of architecture and interior design. His work was just too ‘out there’ for many of his contemporaries. But he stuck to his guns, and that shows a huge strength of character; in short, he had a lot of bottle. I also love the way that when he got a job to design a building, he did the lot. You didn’t just get the house with Mackintosh, but the furnishings and wallpaper too. You wouldn’t have had to go to Ikea because he designed it all for you!

What was Mackintosh’s finest hour?

Hill House, in Helensburgh, near Glasgow, overlooking the river Clyde. He built and designed absolutely everything in the property, which dates back to the 1900s and, to my mind, it’s his finest domestic creation. You can still see it now [it’s a National Trust for Scotland property] – and it’s just stunning. The interior design is a mix of art nouveau, arts and crafts and Scottish baronial with Japanese-style touches here and there. The colours are bold… and the house just so far ahead of its time.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Not really. I’ve never really heard anyone say anything bad about him – although I think it was rather sad that in later life he turned his back on architecture and design, and devoted himself to his watercolours. I think he had so much more to give the world of architecture.

Can you see any parallels between Mackintosh’s life and your own?

We’re both creative people, although I think my work has been fairly mainstream compared to what he produced. Being creative types, I suspect that we also both had to swim upstream much of the time, and stay true to our beliefs to realise our vision.

If you could meet Mackintosh, what would you ask him?

It’s hard to know what to ask your hero. As a young man, I was once in the same room as Fred Astaire but was too nervous to go up to talk to him! I think I’d ask Mackintosh where he got his ideas, and why he gave up architecture. Most architects keep going until they drop.

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Midge Ure was talking to York Membery. Midge Ure OBE is best known as the frontman with the rock band Ultravox but he also co-wrote and produced the Band Aid chart-topper Do They Know it’s Christmas? and co-organised Live Aid. For details on upcoming shows visit midgeure.co.uk