If you love historic interiors that pack a punch then 78 Derngate is a must see. Since my schooldays, and the obligatory project on Art Nouveau, I've had a little book of postcards featuring the architecture and interiors of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) with the familiar contrasts of black and white, stencilled pink rose motifs and tendril-like decoration tightly restrained in rectilinear grids, but one image always grabbed my attention and stood out as different, that entitled 'Guest bedroom designed for 78 Derngate, Northampton'. Gone are many of the tell-tale Mackintosh features and instead a powerful, purely geometric room is dominated by a wall of stripes pushing up onto the ceiling to form a flat canopy over twin beds, with co-ordinating bedspreads, yet plain, almost unembellished surfaces. Enticingly modern. Cited as a re-creation at the Hunterian Art Gallery, I'd lazily assumed that, as with the bulk of Mackintosh's work, Glasgow was the only place to go. So how excited I was to discover that England, or more specifically Northampton, still has its own piece of Mackintosh magic! Restored in 2002-03, and benefiting from a visitor centre and exhibition space in the adjoining building, 78 Derngate is a Georgian terraced house remodelled in 1916-17 and made stunning by Mackintosh's interiors. I visited this petite yet wonderful gem of early 20th century design to see my picture postcard made real.
The property's owner, and Mackintosh's client, was local business man W. J. Bassett-Lowke, the entrepreneurial founder of a model-making company creating miniature railways and ships. With his impending marriage and the temporary reallocation of his company's engineering expertise to wartime industries, Bassett-Lowke focused on the renovation of his first home, employing an architect neighbour to work on the structural reconfiguration, which included the re-orientation of the staircase to span the width of the house, the addition of a single bay window to the front elevation and a small extension to the rear. He had a keen interest in design and via a visit to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universalle, as well as business contacts in Germany, had been exposed to the more functionalist, angular and simply adorned style that had emerged in the work of Josef Hoffmann and those associated with the Wiener Werkstatte and Vienna Secession. Mackintosh exhibited at the latter in 1900 and had influenced Hoffmann and his contemporaries, and it was perhaps this alignment in their work and Mackintosh's more controlled brand of Art Nouveau, that presented him to Bassett-Lowke as a designer able to satisfy his more progressive tastes, which stood in contrast to both the luxurious surfaces and organic whiplash lines prevalent in Paris and Barcelona, and the Arts and Crafts movement popular at home before the war. Mackintosh was commissioned to reinvent several prominent areas within the house including the front door, the hall, which also served as space to entertain visitors, elements within the dining room, and the guest bedroom. His architectural career having foundered by this time, Mackintosh was living in Chelsea and the project was the most significant he completed during this period. He did not supervise the works, but corresponded and met with Bassett-Lowke to discuss his designs.
As soon as you spot the dark, dramatic doorway with its stepped woodwork, rising up like the tasselled fringe of a stage curtain to reveal a shining lantern and sharp triangular motif, you are instantly drawn to the possibilities of what lies beyond. The frontage of the house certainly betrays the variety of influences imposed upon the building, the quaint bay with leaded casement windows and Mackintosh's door both incongruent with the Georgian facades of Derngate. The alterations to the rear are even more transformative, the planned two storey addition eventually resulted in a full-height bay including balconies, a plain off-white finish starkly contrasting with black window frames, boxes and shutters. Its appearance seems almost continental, the cube shaped planters bringing to mind Hoffmann's Palais Stoclet (1905-11), or the interiors of the Sanatorium Pukersdorf (1904-05), and is highly suggestive of the box-like, free facades of modernist architecture in later decades. Though never attributed to Mackintosh, his influence is thought likely.
The house is now accessed through neither of these original entrances, but via a side opening created at lower ground floor level leading from the adjacent visitor centre. Such adaptations can sometimes have a negative impact, denying visitors the chance to enter and experience the building in the way intended, but 78 Derngate is the better for it. In the kitchen we see one of the more functional rooms of the house which Bassett-Lowke undertook himself, and which in most historic interiors is naturally the last part you see, the relegated and often dark 'below stairs' that often feels less worthy of our attention than the show-stoppers above. Here, the bright white, gloss tiled space reminds us that in 1916, whilst this domestic area was still a significantly lower priority in terms of decoration, changes were afoot that would result in its gradual transformation over the coming century. As 'the servant problem' meant help became harder to find during and beyond the First World War, attention turned to making domestic chores more acceptable to the middle classes and this was to be achieved by labour-saving appliances and led to a reduction in the traditional warren of rooms once inhabited by cooks and maids. The change to the staircase at 78 Derngate created a larger room without partition that served as kitchen and scullery with a wide sink and built-in copper for laundry. Early electrical cooking appliances can be seen on a purpose-built work bench with pull-out shelves, where originally gas rings were situated. Bassett-Lowke clearly had an eye to the future and the kitchen, with its fresh white and pea green colour palette and chequered tiled floor curving at the edges for ease of cleaning, certainly seems to have as much in common with the more modern interwar styles and their focus on light, hygiene and practicality than those of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It is still simple in furnishings and decoration; the traditional centrally positioned table, cupboards and dresser displaying china plates, plain walls divided by a tiled rail, and would have housed a solid fuel range, later replaced by the pink fireplace that exists today. It makes for a surprisingly appealing room, and the cupboards in particular wouldn't look out of place in a Plain English or deVol showroom today.
Above the kitchen is the dining room for which Mackintosh designed a walnut fire surround with integrated wall lanterns and glazed cabinets either side, both of which show his ubiquitous grid formations. This structure and geometry, alongside simple white tiling with a green linear design, create the only pattern, indicating the plain and fuss-free surfaces that Bassett-Lowke desired. Decoratively, the rest of the room is also relatively simple and seems reminiscent of a broadly Art and Crafts based style. Features such as the dado rail and cornice are absent and flat strips of walnut create long panels filled with a leaf pattern wallpaper in sedate shades of dusty pink, violet and green. As much of the original furniture has been lost, including Mackintosh's standard and table lamps, the room now is comparatively bare apart from the recently recovered dining table and a smaller one that sits in the bay. This beautifully inlaid surface, bought by Bassett-Lowke in Germany, perhaps hints at the fact that luxurious materials were still very much a part of even the more functionalist designs at this time.
Ascending to the ground floor, a glimpse of what awaits in the hall can be seen in the reverse of its dramatic screen. Painted in a golden tan colour its patterns show as white and the clear sections allow light through to the stairway. The cylindrical and cube compartments protrude into the space and it is a tantalising spectre for lovers of three-dimensional decoration. It is like seeing a photographic negative before the print. Opposite the dining room door, the screen becomes black and the glass panels extend to a swing door through which the incredible hall is revealed. As the original point of entry to the house, a room used as both hall and lounge, it is easy to imagine the impact Mackintosh's magical interior must have had. On every surface from floor to ceiling, a velvety rich darkness descends, yet it is layered with an array of geometric delights. The northerly aspect results in less natural light, but rather than grapple with this, Mackintosh harnessed it for dramatic effect. Along with the added bay, the space appears increased by voids punched through the wood panelled screen which traverses the central staircase, some bearing triangular and v-shaped leaded glass patterns with dazzling yellow and white light, and others left open to expose the space of the upper stairway. Both make use of the light from above and below, natural and electric, but the room's main lighting is in the form of a unique candelabrum which plays with three-dimensional pattern. Light bounces from white waves and blocks appearing like a sea of sugar cubes, reflecting the chequered border on the carpet below. The screen's empty squares reveal the striking stencilled frieze that marches around the room, a forest of golden yellow arrows peppered with smaller shapes in emerald, cobalt, lilac and fiery red like flat, angular jewels.
The use of panelling and highly stylised motifs was familiar to Mackintosh, the former particularly evident in his Chinese Room at Glasgow's Ingram Street Tea Rooms (1911). The design contains many elements characteristic of his signature rectilinear Art Nouveau style; from the ebonised grid-like furniture, juxtaposed with the white panels of the bay, and the pinks and purples of the soft furnishings, to the organic lines of the curtain fabric and sinewy curves snaking around the newel post. The detailing of the front door is mirrored in the stepped woodwork of the fire surround and all is cohesive, all seems at once classic Mackintosh, yet with a darker edge. The elegance and purity of his earlier largely white schemes, such as at Hill House in Helensburgh (1902-04), is replaced by a more dynamic aesthetic. The vibrant colour and piercing patterns seem to speak of the speed, technology and cultural trends of the coming Jazz Age and its dominant Art Deco style. Interestingly, the guidebook tells us, Mackintosh selected yellow as one of the few that the colour-blind Bassett-Lowke could accurately see, and so we cannot credit the designer with any insight into the Egyptian craze which it appears to anticipate; the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb was still several years away. It is fascinating that this interior was so innovative and had such relevance to what was to come, not just in terms of Art Deco, but also the plainer, unembellished geometry of Austrian and German design that heralded early modernism. Bassett-Lowke was a significant driving force behind Mackintosh's development towards the latter, influencing original designs so that organic, curvilinear forms became more regimented and angular. As can be seen in the inlaid yellow triangles of the smoking cabinet, he also encouraged Mackintosh's use of Erinoid, an early form of sheet plastic licensed in Britain in 1914, showing his desire to incorporate new materials not usually associated with furniture or decoration.
The hall is wonderful, a feast for the eyes and hugely atmospheric. It is incredible to think of it being designed and brought to life against the backdrop of the First World War. Yet with interior design we must always return to the clients, the everyday inhabitants of the space, its end users. What is fantastic about 78 Derngate is that it is so relatable. It was an ordinary, small townhouse, the first home of a newly married couple, a compromise; remodelled rather than created from scratch as Bassett-Lowke might have prefered, and later did with his next home New Ways, built in 1926, also in Northampton. It is not an occasional home with grand rooms used only for specific occasions, for Bassett-Lowke and his wife Jane the hall was part of their everyday environment and you naturally wonder at the reactions to such an arresting decorative scheme. No doubt it fulfilled Bassett-Lowke's desire for an impactful and impressive entrance to his modern home, and photographs of family gatherings portray the drama of the room, its occupants swathed and enveloped in its ever present twilight. His wife though, reportedly did find the effect difficult. Though domestic practicalities and niceties where not ignored in Mackintosh's design; a screen was designed to cover the front door and prevent draught, the niche within the panelling was for placing a vase of flowers, the top of the smoking cabinet folded out to form an occasional table, Jane unsurprisingly found the abundance of ledges created by the lattices on both walls and furniture a task to keep clean. In 1922 the room was redecorated; the ceiling, walls and woodwork painted in a French grey and soft furnishings changed to create a lighter space. Mackintosh was commissioned to provide another decorative frieze, which has been preserved under the restored original design and is also recreated in the exhibition space. Reduced in height, perhaps more in line with traditional proportions, the stencil design still composes triangular and arrow motifs and the bold combination of black, white and yellow is now mixed with red, blue, and grey hues. The intersected diagonals bring a strong sense of movement and the pale background provides a new vibrancy, perhaps more palatable and uplifting for the everyday.
If the striking hall is for some a step into a shadowy chamber then climbing the stairs to the first floor and experiencing Mackintosh's genius use of stark contrast is like a sudden breath of icy fresh air. Whilst maintaining cohesion with the panelling and lattice work, he continued to play with light and dark, solid and void on a large scale so that glancing up or down the staircase is like glimpsing the space either darkened or bleached, theatrical or serene. A bathroom and WC were installed at the front of the house and as with the kitchen, Basset-Lowke demonstrated his familiarity with the latest styles. The room seems far ahead if its time with chunky white American Kohler sanitaryware, including a shower, a heated towel rail, nickel-plated fittings and glass shelves. All aligned with modernity and the emerging trend for gleaming white cleanliness, convenience and health. The reproduced wallpaper creates a very realistic mosaic pattern with deco-like black rectangles simulating floor to ceiling panels.
By contrast the master bedroom has a more conventional interior, muted in colour, the walls are adorned in a silvery-grey paper with a pink rose patterned border, although the sharp, achromatic scheme continues through the French windows, where the balcony's black and white tiled floor, window boxes and louvred shutters have a distinctly continental edge. With its floral patterned curtains and traditional pelmet, mauve carpet and the delicate droplet shaped glass light above the wash basin, the bedroom's decoration is certainly more feminine, and perhaps Jane Bassett-Lowke's influence can be seen here, but with little of the furniture present it is hard to get a full sense of the completed look.
And so up to the top floor, to the second of Mackintosh's spectacular interiors, his striking guest bedroom, the postcard image by which I've long been spell-bound. I've always admired designers who are brave in bringing daring decoration into the domestic sphere and in this room, with its determined stripes, whipping round corners, stretching from wall to ceiling and back again, Mackintosh was fearlessly bold. He did not diverge from Bassett-Lowke's rectilinear precept, from the stripes on the walls, curtains and bedspreads to the uniform angles of the flat faced furniture with its square voids and blue stencilled trim. He showed just what is possible when design is restricted to straight lines and block colour. The addition of sapphire blue to the colour scheme distracts from the vibrancy of the black and white pattern and the use of fabric strips to create the wall decoration and the lustrous textures of the bedding, curtains and upholstery also divert the eye. As with the hall, other accent colours are present in the curtain's emerald green ribbons and the fuchsia pink trim of the blue silk pendant lights. With their bell-shaped curves and delicate glass beads, they are the only element in the room with a more gentle elegance. The furniture is very modern and cleverly designed for the room's proportions, a shared central bedside table allows space on either side of the two beds and in the corner a compact cabinet functioned as a washstand and dressing table. The lack of surface decoration emphasises the grain of the light wood, a contrast to Mackintosh's usual dark mahogany. The room is truly unique and again demonstrates how his work had developed beyond the familiar organic lines and symbolism of the turn of the century into one which foresaw the principles of modernism in the interwar period. I love this room, not just because it is gorgeously and unashamedly geometric, using an arrangement of colour and shape to create decoration you cannot ignore, but because it seems as innovative and relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. George Bernard Shaw stayed at 78 Derngate in1919 and 1922, and a nervous Jane Bassett-Lowke commented that she hoped the decoration would not disturb his sleep. He told her not to worry as he always slept with his eyes shut! Her concerns highlight an ever-present preoccupation with the need for calm, neutral schemes, particularly in spaces of rest and relaxation, and the impact that colour and pattern have on us and our circadian rhythms. His response? An argument I'd say, for a bit more boldness in the bedroom, you do always sleep with your eyes shut. I love waking up to interiors that are unforgettable, and this is just that.
Opposite the guest bedroom is a small room that served as Bassett-Lowke's study and is now home to several items of replicated furniture designed by Mackintosh, including the standard lamp for the hall, which was later visible in the window of New Ways when the couple moved to their new home. Mackintosh was living in France and focused on watercolour painting by the time Bassett-Lowke began his new building project, and so he turned to German architect and designer Peter Behrens to work on what became one of the earliest modern houses in Britain. It appeared on the cover of Ideal Home magazine in 1927 labelled 'The Super Modern House'; 78 Derngate had also been featured in 1920. This is one of many items displayed as you exit the house on the top floor, back into the visitor centre. The space here has a programme of temporary exhibitions, currently Charles Rennie Mackintosh & The Great War, which focuses on his later career, including a wall of cushions showing his textile designs, and a stencil design and furniture from his work on Bassett-Lowke's other smaller project at Candida Cottage, a second home in a Northamptonshire village, undertaken in 1918.
78 Derngate has to have a place in my all time favourite historic interiors. It is simply stunning and it was fascinating to see this later work by Mackintosh and appreciate its place in the development of design from the early century Art Nouveau to the ideals of the Bauhaus. Credit must be given to Bassett-Lowke for creating this amazing interior at such a time and with such a commitment to the more progressive strand of modern design that was never widely adopted in Britain. It is a pity that Mackintosh did not receive more commissions during his later years, I wonder what more he might have conjured?