Mission style furniture emerged out of the Arts and Crafts movement and was extremely popular in America during the first quarter of the 20th century. It traces its beginnings to 1894 when AJ Forbes made a handcrafted chair designed for the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in San Francisco. The mission chair was simple, comfortable and well proportioned. The design both of the church and the chairs were influenced by the Spanish missions of the area, thus the name “mission furniture.”
The Arts and Crafts movement originated in Britain in the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century, led by English textile designer, writer, and socialist, William Morris. Arts and Crafts style furniture sought to leave behind the poorly made pieces that did not withstand long term use and the excessively ornamented furniture of the Victorian Era. The focus more on simple, finely crafted design using materials. In North America, the movement developed between 1880 and 1910, and was particularly popular in the west, influencing the bungalow houses built by California architects Charles and Henry Greene.
It was the German American furniture manufacturer and designer Gustav Stickley who promoted the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement in his designs in America. After his trip to Europe in 1896, Stickley returned to Eastwood, New York with ideas for improving his designs. He believed that furniture should be sensible, comfortable and well produced, which became the general rule for Mission style furniture manufacture.
Stickley firmly stood for simplicity and practicality within both furniture and home design. In 1898, he founded what would become Craftsman Workshops. The publication of his own magazine The Craftsman enabled him to promote his work and contributed to making Mission style furniture popular.
Among his competitors were Charles Limbert and Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft community. Limbert’s furniture, designed with a subtle Dutch influence, demonstrates the image of what Mission styling was all about.
New York furniture maker Joseph McHugh was also influenced by Forbes’ design. He started the production of his simplistic furniture line called “McHugh Mission” in 1895, and by 1901 the straight line furniture was already a huge success.
Mission style furniture celebrates the handmade and gives value to quality and craftsmanship. Characteristics include extreme simplicity, straight line construction and fine craftsmanship. The pieces of furniture are very well proportioned, heavy and substantial, durable and functional, with decorative elements kept very much to a minimum.
As the furniture was also mass-produced, many pieces were made by not so qualified manufacturers are not so remarkably designed. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the companies owned by Gustav’s brothers and Limbert produced pieces that are not valuable. Some of the most valuable pieces of furniture today are a combination of Mission, Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau elements designed by the architects and interior designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Henry Greene.
Today, Mission style furniture is experiencing revival, 100 years after its development. However, as in the past, the quality of the furniture is varied. Some pieces are made of solid quarter sawn oak, while others of pressboard and laminate. Due to the simple design and classic beauty, it works really well with almost every interior décor.