Scottish Design Icons: Mackintosh’s Masterpiece

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. This month, Yan tells us how one particular object, the Oak Room, evokes powerful emotions for her. Read or listen below.

Written by: Yan Xia

Touted as one of V&A Dundee’s crown jewels, the Oak Room is a sight to behold. As I first stepped into the tearoom, I felt an air of tranquillity around me; a subtle smell of linseed oil lifted my spirits. The lamps shimmered like pink tourmaline and amethyst, giving the room a soft glow and bringing out the dark brown of the walls. I was standing in one of the most important interiors in the whole of Scotland. A masterpiece of Mackintosh’s, meticulously crafted to perfection in the 1900s.

Carefully assembled at the heart of the museum, the attention to detail in the design is incredible. Mackintosh made sure everything was the best it could be. He sourced high quality glass and blended them with precious materials to make the lamps we see today.

A woman leading a group on a tour. They're stood in Mackintosh's Oak Room, all dark wood and purple glass.
Yan leading a tour around Mackintosh's Oak Room. (Photo taken pre-pandemic.)

The pink and purple lamps are infused with gold to bring out a gemstone shine. The lights hanging at the top derive their unique green glow from uranium. All colours complement each other wonderfully. Even the ‘crisscross’ lampshades match the wood panel grids on the roof and balconies. But the simplistic design is what accentuates the complex harmonies between all of the carefully chosen pieces of the tearoom. A feat only one of the leading architects of the 20th century could achieve.

The coloured lights are like fireflies, each one casting their own unique glow on the pillars. They scatter beautiful sunray patterns on the floor; the orange lamps are campfires bringing to life the forest in the tearoom. Strolling around the room, enjoying the experience, is one of the best ways to relax and it connects you with nature and the outside world.

The Oak Room creates a calm, peaceful environment, which on a freezing winter evening in the 1900s would have allowed you to enjoy the wonders of nature by a cozy fireplace with the comfort of a steaming cup of tea. An undoubtedly important and welcoming place, being one of the first (apart from churches) that women could visit, the tearoom was, and remains today, a place of social gathering: a home, a hearth in the cold.

Mackintosh's Oak Room, all dark wood and purple glass.
Mackintosh's Oak Room, all dark wood and purple glass.
Mackintosh's Oak Room, all dark wood and purple glass. A staircase rises to the upper level.
Close-up of purple and pink glass.
  • The Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

  • The Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

  • The Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

  • Close-up of some of the glass in the Oak Room.

One of the aspects I find most interesting about the Oak Room is that Kengo Kuma, the Japanese architect of V&A Dundee, was inspired by Mackintosh’s design. He studied it when visiting Scotland as a student. Mackintosh himself was heavily inspired by Japanese culture, which is expressed in an elegant way in the Oak Room with wooden struts creating lattices on either side of the staircase. This exchange of cultures is fascinating and extremely fitting for the centerpiece of V&A Dundee.

The Oak Room is a complete work of art. The tearoom never ceases to engross me, giving me the same joy as it did the first time I entered the room. It is a piece of nature and it is a piece of the city; it is a piece of Japan and it is a piece of Scotland; it is dark yet filled with light; it is intricate with no intricacies in sight. It is Mackintosh’s magnum opus, a wonder of his works.

This article is part of a collaborative project with Amina MWRC to train local Muslim, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women as freelancers to deliver guided tours of our Scottish Design Galleries in both English and their native language.