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Surface strategies

building study

Derngate is primarily about decoration; about colour, surface and texture. Although one might say the key architectural moves were the construction of the rear extension, the relocation of the stair from front-to-back to side-to-side and the installation of contemporary services (moves that emphasise the flow of space, fresh air and use of technology - important later Modernist concerns), Derngate's character is rooted in its decorative finishes.

Restoring these finishes presented a number of interesting challenges, since little of the 1917 decorative schemes survived in any form. However, a range of research material was available to work on: physical evidence (the house itself, paint research, surviving furniture); documentary evidence (design drawings by Mackintosh, letters between Mackintosh and BassettLowke, and the latter's black-and-white photographs);

and conjectural evidence (use of historical and practical 'making'knowledge, general archive material). The work depended on teamwork, coordination, thorough research, patience and a good deal of intuition.

Derngate is tiny. But every wall face, floor finish, window treatment and fitting was a one-off. So research was intensive and extremely time-consuming. There was no 'straight' specification or universal approach; everything was unique both in research and production. For each element, the substrate, texture and colour 'facts', if any, were ascertained. These were the primary sources but they were relatively scarce, as little of the physical fabric remained. They included evidence that existed in situ: paint samples, stained glass, tiles and inlays on the furniture.

Secondary sources, such as written and oral accounts, generally proved to be unreliable, either for their oversimplification (what kind of 'blue' is 'blue'? ) or for the inaccuracy of language (the term 'papered', for example, could refer to either the process of hanging a wallcovering or the substrate of the material itself ).But these sources helped to establish an attitude and enabled a 'case' to be put forward. Colours are particularly difficult to describe because, in addition to the three-dimensional issues of brightness, saturation and tone, they have historical resonances and are affected by personal preferences. The team had to get into the mindset of both the period and the characters involved.

Textures suffer even more in written accounts, rarely mentioned yet essential to the feel of the space. This had an impact on both the research and the practical application. The only way of transferring colour and textural references between the team was with actual physical samples. Tiny scraps of fabric, paint swatches and wool tufts were passed around, discussed, tested and eventually matched.

The result is extraordinary; a riot of colour and pattern.

Once past the initial sensory impact, the textural subtleties can be absorbed, the attention to detail appreciated and the original skill involved can be properly recognised. Flat matt paint is used with gloss, cut and loop carpet is used side by side, and stripes of cotton satin are raised up on a ribbed linen weave. Simple manipulation of ordinary things can produce incredible effects. It is a house of drama, but it also has richness and depth.

Derngate might feel alien to today's polite tastes but its approach is absolutely contemporary. Mackintosh worked in Glasgow at the height of the shipbuilding era, when interiors were stripped out and refitted quickly and efficiently in a choice of styles, depending on cost and taste.Mackintosh's attitude to interiors was the same. This image-dominated shopfitting approach is not dissimilar to how we work today. Surface strategies dominate the architectural agenda - cladding, wrapping, layering.The contemporary language is one that Mackintosh would have understood.

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