Early in his career, in 1896, Mackintosh met Catherine Cranston (widely known as Kate Cranston or simply Miss Cranston), an entrepreneurial local business woman who was the daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant and a strong believer in temperance.
The temperance movement was becoming increasingly popular in Glasgow at the turn of the century and Miss Cranston had conceived the idea of a series of "art tearooms", venues where people could meet to relax and enjoy non-alcoholic refreshments in a variety of different "rooms" within the same building. This proved to be the start of a long working relationship between Miss Cranston and Mackintosh. Between 1896 and 1917 he designed and re-styled interiors in all four of her Glasgow tearooms, often in collaboration with his wife Margaret MacDonald.
Mackintosh was engaged to design the wall murals of her new Buchanan Street tearooms in 1896. The tearooms had been designed and built by George Washington Browne of Edinburgh, with interiors and furnishings being designed by George Walton. Mackintosh designed stencilled friezes depicting opposing pairs of elongated female figures surrounded by roses for the ladies’ tearoom, the luncheon room and the smokers’ gallery.
In 1898, his next commission for the existing Argyle Street tearooms saw the design roles reversed, with Mackintosh designing the furniture and interiors, and Walton designing the wall murals. This was to see the first appearance of Mackintosh's trademark high-backed chair design. In 1900 Miss Cranston commissioned him to redesign an entire room in her Ingram Street tearooms, which resulted in the creation of the White Dining Room. Patrons entering the dining room from Ingram Street had to pass through a hallway separated from the room by a wooden screen with leaded glass inserts, offering tantalising glimpses of the experience to come.
This led to the commission to design completely the proposed new tearooms in Sauchiehall Street in 1903. For the first time, Mackintosh was given responsibility for not only the interior design and furniture, but also for the full detail of the internal layout and exterior architectural treatment. The resultant building came to be known as the Willow Tearooms, and is the best known and most important work that Mackintosh undertook for Miss Cranston.
The location selected by Miss Cranston for the new tearooms was a four-storey former warehouse building on a narrow infill urban site on the south side of Sauchiehall Street. The name "Sauchiehall" is derived from "saugh", the Scots word for a willow tree, and "haugh", meadow. This provided the starting point for Mackintosh and MacDonald's ideas for the design theme.
Within the existing structure, Mackintosh designed a range of spaces with different functions and decor for the Glasgow patrons to enjoy. There was a ladies’ tearoom to the front of the ground floor, with a general lunch room to the back and a tea gallery above it. The first floor contained the "Room de Luxe", a more exclusive ladies' room overlooking Sauchiehall Street. The second floor contained a timber-panelled billiards room and smoking rooms for the men. The design concept foresaw a place for the ladies to meet their friends, and for the men to use on their breaks from office work - an oasis in the city centre.
The decoration of the different rooms was themed: light for feminine, dark for masculine. The ladies' tea room at the front was white, silver, and rose; the general lunch room at the back was panelled in oak and grey canvas, and the top-lit tea gallery above was pink, white, and grey. In addition to designing the internal architectural alterations and a new external facade, in collaboration with his wife Margaret, Mackintosh designed almost every other aspect of the tearooms, including the interior design, furniture, cutlery, menus, and even the waitress uniforms. Willow was the basis for the name of the tearooms, but it also formed an integral part of the decorative motifs employed in the interior design, and much of the timberwork used in the building fabric and furniture.
The Room de Luxe was the most extravagant of the rooms that Mackintosh created, and proved to be the tearooms' main attraction. The room was positioned on the first floor at the front of the building, slightly above the level of the tea gallery at the rear, and featured a vaulted ceiling with a full-width, slightly curved bay window looking out to Sauchiehall Street. Entrance to the room was by way of a magnificent set of double doors which featured leaded glass decoration, hinting at the colours and motifs to be found beyond.
Described at the time as "a fantasy for afternoon tea", the room was intimate and richly decorated. It featured a sumptuous colour scheme of grey, purple and white, featuring a soft grey carpet, a silk upholstered dado, chairs and settees upholstered in a rich rose-purple, and silver painted tables with high-backed chairs. The walls were painted a simple white, with a high level frieze of coloured, mirrored and leaded glass panels. One side wall contained the fireplace and, opposite, the other wall featured one of Margaret MacDonald's most famous works, the gesso panel inspired by Rossetti's sonnet O Ye, all ye that walk in Willow Wood. This was all complemented by crisp, white tablecloths and blue willow-pattern crockery.
The luxurious decoration of the room can be understood as a logical extension of the Mackintoshes' stylistic development from 1900, where they would develop all-encompassing interior designs for domestic commissions, and then transfer these to their designs for commercial projects and exhibitions. Their colourful interior designs in the House for an Art Lover culminated in the Room de Luxe interior as a commercial vision of the European idea of the room as a work of art.
Mackintosh's redesigned external facade was a carefully considered asymmetric, abstractly modelled composition with shallow curves on some areas of the surface, and varying depths of recesses to windows and the main entrance. The composition respected the urban context of the neighbouring buildings, matching the major cornice lines and heights of adjoining buildings, whilst still exploring emerging ideas of Art Nouveau and the modern movement.
The ground floor entrance door is placed far to the left of a wide band of fenestration, both of which are recessed below the first-floor level, the location of the Room de Luxe. To emphasise the importance of this room, Mackintosh designed a full width bay window, projecting the facade outwards with a gentle curve. The two storeys above this featured a more regular pattern of fenestration with three individual windows per floor, recessed to different degrees. The asymmetry of the composition was continued by widening the left side windows and creating another gentle curve in this part of the facade, extending through both storeys. This repeated the curved form of the first floor and emphasised the heavily recessed entrance to the building below.
Mackintosh chose to finish the facade in a white-painted smooth render, in contrast to the natural stone finish of nearby buildings. This decision, plus the use of small paned windows and ornamental tile inserts forming a chequered border around the perimeter of the facade, gave it an elegance and lightness of touch appropriate for its purpose. The domestic-style leaded glass announced the intimacy of the interior and hinted at the luxurious willow theme to be found inside.
Following the death of her husband in 1917, Miss Cranston sold her businesses. The Willow Tearooms continued in use under a new name until they were incorporated into Daly's department store in 1928. By 1938 the others had passed into the hands of Cranston's Tearooms Ltd. When this company went into liquidation in 1954 the tearooms were sold and subsequently put to a number of different uses over the years. Though Daly's adapted the Willow Tearooms building as part of their department store, the façade was unchanged above their ground floor plate glass shop window and fascia, the moulded plaster frieze could still be seen above the ground floor shopfittings, and the Room de Luxe remained in use as the department store tea room until they closed around the start of the 1980s.
Extensive restoration work was carried out under the architect Geoffrey Wimpenny of Keppie Henderson, successors of the Honeyman, Keppie and Mackintosh partnership of almost a century earlier. The Willow Tearooms reopened in 1983 with the restored ground floor façade forming the shop front to Henderson the jewellers which occupied the ground floor and the reconstructed gallery.
At the same time the Room de Luxe was refurbished to recreate the original colour scheme, and furnished with reproductions of the high back chairs, though originally there were only eight of these chairs at formal central tables while chairs around the perimeter had lower backs. It was reopened in 1983 by Anne Mulhern, a Glasgow business woman, and in 1996 she also leased the tea gallery at the rear of the building. Today, visitors can once again experience some of the Willow Tearooms as Mackintosh intended. In 1997 "The Willow" expanded into new Tearooms at 97 Buchanan Street, next door to the original Miss Cranston tearooms. These feature recreations of the original designs that Mackintosh created as the "White Dining Room" and "Chinese Room" for Miss Cranston's nearby Ingram Street tearoom.
The tea room has since fallen into disrepair and is now lacking its originally intended atmosphere and quality. Fans of Mackintosh are urgently calling for a more sympathetic restoration. The Willow Tearooms are currently closed, undergoing extensive renovations prior to the 2018 centenary.