The Hill House, built by the great Scottish architect Charles Re
Sun lights rooms differently at different times of the day. Molding,
door, and hardware styles establish interior patterns. Ceilings, walls, and
floors create lines that influence the dimensions of space. Furniture, light
fixtures, and furnishings dramatically affect the ambiance and functionality of
rooms. These forces are at work in every home design. The question is whether you
want to harness them or let them fall to chance.
The great Scottish architect Charles Renee Macintosh orchestrated
design details to symphonic effect. Looking at his work in books and on the
Internet is one thing. Walking his homes – as I had to the occasion to do recently
on a visit to Helensburgh – serves as a reminder of how disparate details can
come together to form a magnificent whole. Every small decision – the shape of
a hallway light fixture, the pattern in a carpet, the size of a fireplace –
ultimately becomes part of a larger scheme that affects the image of your home.
Macintosh, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, though they
never met, took this exercise to another level. A devotee of the Art Nouveau
style that spread across Europe in the early 20th century, he also pioneered
development of a new Glasgow style that fused contemporary and traditional
influences, including the castles that dot the Scottish landscape. Ultimately
he synthesized these forces in a magnificent whole that was all his own.
The Hill House, built on a hillside for a publishing magnate
Walter Blackie in 1902-3, may be the architect’s masterpiece. Blackie asked
Macintosh to refrain from “adventitious ornamentation” on the exterior and to look
to Scottish history for inspiration. Macintosh delivered a spare form with modern
massing. The house soars from its site with turrets, chimneys, and windows that
borrow from Scottish castles.
Blackie thought Mackintosh ignored the placement of windows;
they do seem unordered at first glance. But the architect purposely put them in
random places, just like you might see on a castle. A seemingly stray window
greets visitors at the front door, the stucco siding around it cut away to
reveal concrete blocks. The detail reveals the Scottish practice of harling –
putting a long-lasting finish on a stone building. Concrete blocks return to
frame the entry door, hinting at geometry within the house.
Black pine panels that resemble tree trunks line the front
hallway. They alternate with wall panels stenciled with orchards. Four steps separate
the entry vestibule from the main hallway, which doubled as an alternate living
room, with a table in the middle and seating along the wall. Lanterns designed
by Macintosh feature a motif based on the seed of the honesty plant. The same
pods shows up in the wall stenciling. And the square pattern announced at the
front door appears in the hallways’ carpet, light fittings, and chairs. Macintosh used wall colors to denote different regions
within the home – black in the male domains (the dining room and library), white
in feminine spaces (the drawing room and main bedroom), and green in rooms
occupied by servants (the kitchen and storage rooms). Glass door inserts shine
purple light into the male rooms, pink light into more feminine rooms.
Only two rooms at the Hill House – the drawing room and main
bedroom -- retain the furnishings designed by Macintosh and his artist wife,
Margaret Macdonald. The floral pattern on the drawing room walls elaborates on
the frieze pattern in the hall. Silver foil trunks separate stenciled rose
patterns, with stray petals scattered about as if blown by the breeze. Niches
on each side of the door were originally designed to hold vases for roses to
scent the room, reinforcing the indoor garden perception. Today they house
switches for electric lights, which were added later.
Black and white furniture, with floral and color inserts, compliments
the room’s color scheme. The rose petals are repeated in the built-in window
seat. Mother of pearl and floral inserts accent the room’s dark furniture,
including a magnificent winged writing desk designed by Macintosh for Mrs.
Blackie. The national trust that owns the home bought back the desk back at
auction in 2002. Macintosh didn’t design the piano for the room, but he did
give it new legs to make it look more like it belonged.
The drawing room illustrates how furniture dramatically
influences the perception of a room. This chamber shines in comparison to the
dining room, which was mostly decorated with pieces the Blackies brought from a
previous house. Here and in other rooms Mackintosh did his best to design
around furniture that was foreign to his design conceit. Picture rails in the
dining room and elsewhere create a human scale in rooms with tall ceilings. The
rails combine with molding over windows and doors to create unbroken lines.
This attention to line is on magnificent display in the main
bedroom. A headboard behind the bed continues the line around the room. It also
emphasizes the barrel vault over the bed. Two black ladderback chairs, which
separate sleeping from other functions within the L-shaped room, suggest
trellises that support the roses stenciled on the walls. Mrs. Blackie used the
white painted wardrobes to store her clothes. Upholstery on the fireplace
settle suggests thistles, the Scottish national flower.
architect considered the home’s solar orientation before he laid out the floor
plan. The main bedroom mostly faces west so that parents could enjoy the
setting sun. The children’s bedrooms mainly face east to catch early morning
sunlight. They are within a “windsbreath” of the rose garden and wild flower
orchard. The location of the bedrooms suggests the cycle of life. Guest
bedrooms face south, so that guests could linger longer in bed. The main public
rooms are also on the south side, where they benefit from warm sunlight – a key
consideration in cloudy Scotland. They provide magnificent views of a garden, a
sloping lawn, and the River Clyde in the distance.
If the home reaches the realm of art, it is also rife with
practical built-ins to facilitate daily life. A shelf inside a kitchen bay
window was designed to cool pies. Built-in window seating along the
second-floor hallway provides the perfect perch to do homework, though the
Blackie children used it to stage plays, storing their costumes in built-in
An alcove cut into the stair landing allowed the children to spy on
guests. A cupboard under the stairs in Walter’s bedroom stored toys and books.