What mission means

How design from decades past still influences modern craftsmen

By Keith Donnelly

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I recently shared an English village cottage with a massive, dark sideboard, carved with the date 1689 on its front amidst Celtic knot designs. It had solid, wedged joinery. Elsewhere in the cottage, I found a panelled stairwell and large wooden pegs–worn but slightly proud–holding down rough-hewn floor planks.

This kind of craftsmanship served necessity; decoration was an infrequent luxury. Did seeing such work inspire William Morris and his fellow British designers in the late 1800s? The ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement–honest workmanship instead of shoddy mass production–is rooted in a time before Victorian industrialization.

What is it that makes an Arts and Crafts (or Mission) piece of furniture instantly recognizable?
Is the quartersawn oak grain the first clue? Mission style is known for rectilinear geometries, an emphasis on the beauty of the wood’s grain and visible joinery, which is often the only decorative feature. Other frequently found elements include square legs, panels and doors with squared inner edges, corbels, leaded glass, hammered iron hardware and through tenons, sometimes wedged or pegged.

Is one or two of these enough to qualify a piece as Mission? Does a turned leg rule it out? Maybe–but there’s also plenty of freedom. Our old friend, the Morris chair, can have wide slats, narrow slats or no slats at all.

During the movement’s heyday, from 1880 to 1920, different versions of the style evolved, associated with Gustav Stickley (Craftsman) and Elbert Hubbard (Roycroft) in New York state, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (often called the Glasgow school), Frank Lloyd Wright (Prairie) and the Greene brothers (Pasadena, Calif.). Each is known for bringing certain elements to Mission style. For instance, Mackintosh is known for his vertical feel, four-squares patterns and Art Nouveau style.

At the 2007 Grove Park Inn Arts and Crafts Conference in Asheville, N.C., which celebrated both the history of the movement and its future, I met two furniture makers who take different approaches to Mission style.

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