When decoration meets construction

When the doors of this white cabinet, designed in 1902 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, are closed, it becomes a plain, rather functional object with little color and not much more decoration. But when they are opened, exquisite design and color are suddenly disclosed (as well as whatever objects are placed on the shelves). The silver-painted inner faces of the doors - with their strange, elegant decoration of a girl holding a rose-ball (a kind of innocent echo of Beardsley) - spread themselves like butterfly wings in the sun. Their decoration is in white, rose, violet, and blue glass inlay.

Further small motifs, rather like isolated details from Celtic jewelry, also become visible, and the slender white edges of the shelves and vertical dividers are seen. The simplicity of their function is transformed by a very subtle fantasy: They are like the stems and branchings of a graceful plant.

Although Mackintosh, in both his architecture and his furniture, was for ''decorated construction'' as opposed to ''constructed decoration,'' this cabinet goes further than theory and arrives at a mutual dependence of decoration and construction.

It is not without significance that he designed this white-painted oak cabinet - in fact a pair of them - for a woman client, Mrs. Rowat of Glasgow. Some of his most lyrical, original interior design and furniture was also for a woman, Mrs. Cranston, owner of a number of tearooms in Glasgow. One, the Willow Tea Room on Sauchiehall Street, has recently been restored, a splendid record of his work for Mrs. Cranston.

Mackintosh brought to his interiors and furniture what Robert Macleod calls a ''curious interlocking of intellect and emotion, of function and fantasy.'' Another writer, Roger Billcliffe, commenting on the white cabinet and other furnishings for Mrs. Rowat, says they are ''distinctly feminine,'' compared with his designs for other houses.

Be that as it may, Mackintosh liked his white cabinets enough to have a duplicate pair made for his own home. It is clear from his original drawing that in each case the two cabinets were meant to stand almost touching when the doors were open. The result was a glorious friezelike, horizontal rhythm of door wings and shelves: door, shelves, door/door, shelves, door.

Mrs. Rowat's two cabinets were placed in this precise relationship against the wall opposite her fireplace. There is no conclusive evidence, though, how Mackintosh and his wife placed theirs in the flat they had at the time. In 1906 they moved to a different flat in Glasgow (on Southpark Avenue), and the principal rooms of this home have been superbly reconstructed at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow University. Here the cabinets are placed on each side of the white drawing-room fireplace. This is guesswork, because there are no photographs showing Mackintosh's placing of furniture in the flat. But it does seem the only place available. Possibly it was a compromise when the Mackintoshes moved, but the cabinets do seem a little crammed here, and are unfortunately separated from each other.

Mrs. Rowat's two cabinets disappeared into other, private hands. The one shown here was even described, until recently, as ''whereabouts unknown.'' It has been found, with some other Mackintosh furniture, in Canada, its present owners having emigrated from Glasgow. Now exceedingly valuable, it was to have been auctioned in early October by Sotheby's in Monaco. But the Canadian government refused an export permit, and the Mackintosh works were withdrawn from the sale.

Perhaps this white cabinet will find its way into a Canadian museum, evidence of the growing revival of interest in one of the most imaginative artist/architect/designers to emerge at the turn of the century. This was a time when austere modernism was in the air but a free delight in art nouveau decoration was still possible. Mackintosh's cabinet marvelously balances these two tendencies, and in the process offers an insight into his unusual vision.

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