At the turn of the 20th century, Glasgow was called the second city of the British Empire for its size and influence. Its location on the River Clyde made it an ideal port, and significant cross-fertilization occurred as a result. The end of Japan’s isolationism allowed their influence to reach Britain, and designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh embraced Japanese aesthetics. The style eventually became widespread, but initially went against the then-popular idea that quality of workmanship could be measured through level of ornament. Designers like Mackintosh combined incoming Japanese influences with their own sensibilities, seeking beauty of form through simplicity and geometry. Japonism, or Japan’s influence on Western art, was predominant during this time, and countless designers became enamored with the Japanese use of clean lines and simplistic elegance. A look into Japanese-inspired furniture design around this period offers great insight at the style’s pervasiveness.
In 1904, Catherine Cranston, more commonly known as Miss Cranston, commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design in full her “Willow Tea Rooms.” Located in Glasgow, the business was intended to be a hub for socialization that was affordable yet refined, and was touted as an establishment for “ladies and gentlemen.” Tearooms were beginning to appear at the same time as Cranston’s, but many others were costly. The combined atmosphere and accessibility of Cranston’s made hers the most successful.
Because he was situated in the port city of Glasgow, Mackintosh held a multi-cultural perspective. Mackintosh was an avid collector of Japanese wood block prints, and held an interest in the country’s culture. When devising the Tea Rooms, Mackintosh applied principles of Japanese design. These applications can be observed especially well in the “Willow chair” he designed for the Tea Rooms. While the chair isn’t without visual complexity, Mackintosh avoided the carved ornamentation that was popular with the Arts and Crafts movement at the time. He instead employed simple formal elements as building blocks for a more intricate design. The pattern on the chair’s back represents a willow tree, referencing the name of the Tea Rooms. Mackintosh made use of linearity and basic geometric shapes to imply the form, boiling down his idea to simplest terms instead of depicting it literally. The result of this was an economical yet elegant design.
As Kazuko Koizumi states in Traditional Japanese Furniture, the aesthetics of Japanese furniture are simple in nature and echo “the rectilinear, exposed post-and-beam structural joinery of Japanese architecture.” These elements are clearly manifested in a late 19th century single-panel screen that appears in Koizumi’s book. While the designer of the screen is unknown, it is a fair representation of the traditional Japanese furniture style. The piece implements straight lines with little deviation from its rigid linearity. As in Mackintosh’s Willow Chair, motif is created through line rather than explicit ornamentation. This is seen in the latticework typical of much Japanese furniture design.
Another common thread in both Mackintosh’s work and this one is attention to finish. Surface treatment is a defining aspect of Japanese furniture design. The ebonized wood of Mackintosh’s chair and the staining of the Japanese screen each increase their elegance without over-embellishment. And though this specific screen was not, it was common to ebonize, or stain wood to be black like ebony, in traditional Japanese furniture design.
English architect-designer Edward William Godwin gained prominence before Mackintosh designed the Willow chair, but parallels can easily be drawn between the two. Though he was never able to travel to Japan, Godwin experienced a similar influx of influences as Mackintosh did as Japanese isolationism ended. Godwin was also an avid collector of woodblock prints and other Japanese artifacts starting from the mid 19th century, and he stated that many of his designs were “more or less founded on Japanese principles.” He, too, strived for economy in design. He initially produced furniture for his own use, desiring it to be simple and functional rather than ornate.
Godwin’s most famous piece is likely the Anglo-Japanese sideboard. It has been reproduced many times since its initial in 1867. The piece of furniture is comprised of rectilinear forms and straight lines. Its simplified latticework is much like that of Japanese screens, such as in the aforementioned single-panel screen. Like Mackintosh, Godwin ebonized the piece in emulation of Japanese surface finishes.
Frank Lloyd Wright was another figure affected by Japonism in the early 20th century. Wright visited Japan in 1905, and his early furniture design is reflective of how the country’s aesthetics affected his sensibilities. Wright’s oak-paneled bookshelf was included in the G. C. Stockman house, built in 1908, and took inspiration from Japanese design in several aspects. It utilized “harmonious proportions” and excluded “carved ornamentation.” It was also comprised almost entirely of rectilinear forms. His use of line is especially reminiscent of traditional Japanese screens and panels. And although the bookshelf’s stain is not distinctly Japanese, his treatment of the surface of the piece embellishes it in spite of its relative simplicity. Some of Wright’s other early furniture, such as a china cabinet, was built into the original plan or structure of the G. C. Stockman house. This built-in approach to furniture was common in Japanese homes and directly emulated by Wright.
In Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design, author Doreen Ehlrich states that Wright was a collector of Japanesewoodblock prints, and that he “had studied the refined proportions and use of natural materials in representations of houses” from the prints even before visiting Japan in person. It is also likely that Wright was drawn to Japanese aesthetics because their ideals so closely aligned with his own preferences. Wright favored elegant geometric designs without ornament, referring to his own ideal as “distinguished simplicity.” This philosophy, too, closely relates to the formal qualities of Mackintosh’s Willow chair, and Wright is widely considered to be a contemporary of Mackintosh by scholars.
The opening of communications in the late 19th to early 20th centuries between the world and Japan sparked an entire wave of design that became extremely pervasive. The exchange between the world and the previously isolated country challenged previous notions of quality design. Designers digested unfamiliar art and artifacts, and many took inspiration from them. The fresh cultural perspective dictated their resulting work, sometimes throughout their lifetime. By examining this highly specific cross-section of design influence during a narrow span of time, we can gain interesting insight into the way in which design thought is transmitted and exchanged globally.
Buchanan, William. Mackintosh’s Masterwork: the Glasgow School of Art.
Piscataway, NY: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Accessed February 23, 2011.
Crawford, Alan. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
Ehlrich, Doreen. Frank Lloyd Wright: Interior Style & Design. Philadelphia, PA:
Running Press Book Publishers, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2011. Google
Koizumi, Kazuko. Traditional Japanese Furniture. Tokyo: Kodansha International,
1986. Google Books.
Soros, Susan Weber. E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer.
New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999. Accessed February 23,
2011. Google Books.