A fritillary caught me by surprise, and tossed me from where I stood in my front yard on an overcast spring day to a garden in Scotland where I stood on an overcast spring day fifteen years ago. It was the first time I ever saw the curvaceous little flowers with the grid-pattern petals. That’s not quite true. I had seen them in pictures a few days earlier when I toured the Charles Rennie Mackintosh house inside the Hunterian Art Gallery.
I always admired the contrasts in Mackintosh design, between rigid grids and swirly rose motifs and between natural wood and stark black and white finishes. This was years before Peter Jackson made his famous movies, but when he did, I wasn’t surprised to see elements of Mackintosh in Rivendell; his work has an otherworldly feel. So when I saw his sketches of fritillaries in the art gallery, I thought they were imagined flowers.
But for all that was original in Mackintosh’s work, he no more designed the fritillary than he designed the swervy curves of the roses that soften and humanize his grids. Those were the work of his wife, Margaret McDonald, his classmate at the Glasgow School of Art and a designer in her own right.
Between the two of them they created the magical, serene interiors of the house whose reconstruction I toured and fell in love with. Their ‘total design’ approach made for an atmosphere of grace and beauty reminiscent of Japanese temples, but like Japanese architecture, its requirement that the life fit the space rather than the other way around meant that I could never put their principles into practice.
At least, not fully. My aesthetic is still dominated by squares. My husband is drawn to curves. Although our home is predominantly characterized by mess, if you look under the clutter you will see the grid of our front window lit by an arced ceiling fixture; the swerve of a patio overlooking a grid of raised beds in the yard.
Mackintosh and McDonald. Moses and Alexander. Grids and swerves need each other to make a pleasing design.
If you’ve ever existed in grids and swerves, you know… the fritillary ties the room together.