These two houses both appear to be modest works of art deco. Deco was the style that defined Hollywood’s golden age and New York’s soaring skyline, but, in the UK, it became suburbanised, reduced to a series of diluted mass-manufactured motifs from flat roofs to sunrise windows. However, neither of these houses actually belong to art deco. One foreshadows the style, the other transcends it.
These two houses, in the rather surprising setting of Northampton, in the East Midlands, were designed by two of the greatest European architects of the 20th century, two defining figures of modernism: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.
What they have in common, aside from being in Northampton, is their client. Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953) was one of Britain’s great toy manufacturers, pioneering model railways and accessories. He was also passionate about architecture. In 1917 he commissioned Mackintosh (1868-1928), then a figure rather out of fashion, to remodel his unremarkable, early 19th century terraced house at 78 Derngate. Mackintosh had left Glasgow (in and around which are his greatest works) for rooms in Chelsea and was scraping an increasingly whisky-soaked existence selling an occasional watercolour.
The house’s dramatic, geometric interior represents an extraordinary departure for the architect. Mackintosh had been a huge influence on the emergence of the Austrian artists’ group, the Vienna Secession. The work of Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and others is unthinkable without Mackintosh’s attenuated lines, black squares and grids. Yet here, Mackintosh seems to have repaid the compliment by taking inspiration from a Viennese designer, Josef Urban. By the time Mackintosh built 78 Derngate, Urban had emigrated to the US, where he became a highly successful set designer and a favourite of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst turned to Mackintosh when he wanted a headquarters in New York and the result was the odd art deco building which Foster and Partners extended in 2006 into the faceted Hearst Tower.
Mackintosh’s interior at 78 Derngate is dense, rich and striking. Each room has a radically different scheme and each detail seems to have been pored over and refined. From the front door, with its stepped pediment, decorative lantern and stained glass, to the stripy black, blue and white bedroom, the house reveals itself to be one of the most distinctive domestic interiors in Britain. It is particularly notable for the era – after the exuberance of arts and crafts and art nouveau – when grim sobriety was the norm.
The most extraordinary thing is the way that Mackintosh’s interiors presage art deco, which did not emerge elsewhere until the mid-1920s. The black walls with appliqué gold geometric patterns, the stepped Aztec motifs on the doors and fireplace, the vertical stripes and the blocky, geometric forms of the furniture, all predict the kind of Hollywood glamour that is difficult to reconcile with a Northampton terrace. The living room, with its boxy bay window and curious, proto-deco fireplace, is the point at which you can feel the cosy domesticity of the architect’s Scottish houses rubbing up against a renewed, theatrical verve.
Perhaps it reflected a desire to escape the vernacular Scottish character of all his work to date – to establish a jazzy new Chelsea style. Perhaps it was just a scream against the prevailing gloom. Or perhaps it was an outburst of pleasure in being able to reapply himself to architecture. Whatever it was, it remains a pure, surprising delight.
Despite this, Bassett-Lowke and his wife, Florence, moved on quickly. After the end of the war, he sought out the German architect Peter Behrens to design a bespoke house, also in Northampton (he wanted to remain near his model train factory).
Behrens was a figure as remarkable and influential as Mackintosh and an exact contemporary – he, too, was born in 1868. Often considered to be one of the pioneering modernists, his office was a kind of mecca to the young, radical architects of early modernism. Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all worked there. But perhaps what attracted Bassett-Lowke, the manufacturer, to Behrens was the way in which he managed to inform industry with design.
Behrens was engaged by the German manufacturing giant AEG as an artistic consultant. This was an extremely modern concept – one that most companies still have not caught up with today. Behrens was commissioned to redesign AEG’s product ranges, its packaging, marketing, logos, typefaces and, of course, its buildings. His 1909 factory for turbine production in Berlin is one of the most influential and often-quoted buildings in modern architectural history, with its intriguing blend of brick industrialism, grand German classicism and sheer engineering clarity. Wenman commissioned Behrens to design what would become, effectively, the first modernist house to be built in Britain.
Named New Ways, the house was a simple, clear, symmetrical work – which now appears modest, suburban and rather bland. Compared with the grandeur and confidence of the turbine factory, there is not much to see here, partly because Behrens’ restrained – arguably Anglicised – version of modernism subsequently became a default alternative to the stockbroker Tudor and sub-vernacular of “Metroland”.
At the time, New Ways was radical (in England at least) for several reasons. It had a flat roof, something the Britons have always held out against, apparently because of the damp climate. Its monotony (or aesthetic unacceptability) was relieved by a row of stumpy steel rods, which give it a slight touch of Santa Fe. It had a rather odd vertical window jutting out like a prow right through its centre (crowned with a chunky, Metropolis-type font proclaiming the date – 1926) and – apart from two on the ground floor – a baffling lack of windows on its front, where the grandest rooms might usually expect to be. The back, however, was a different story. Large metal-framed windows and balconies set into the façade made the rear of the house appear as moderne as any of its continental cousins, if rather less self-conscious.
Bassett-Lowke took some of the furniture from Derngate with him, notably the dining table and beds. He also stipulated that the living room be large enough to accommodate dancing and that each room should have central heating (very unusual in Britain at the time), although the front room had to have a fireplace as well – the English never quite lost that habit. The servants were also unusually well catered for. Perhaps as a nod to a new generation returning from the war and less inclined to accept shoddy conditions (or perhaps just out of sheer goodwill), the servants’ quarters were generous and came with a living room.
Yet it was not universally popular. George Bernard Shaw was once a guest in the stripy spare bedroom. When asked if he had slept well, he replied, “Yes, thank you. I always sleep with my eyes shut.”
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic