Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, and Mission Style Interior Furnishings

Putting mission style into perspective

Arts and Crafts was a philosophical design movement that was far reaching and eclectic in nature. Eventually, it came to be called Craftsman style, particularly in America. Mission style was a subset of Craftsman style, a term coined by Gustav Stickley in describing his furniture.

Arts and Crafts Movement

During the first half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution mechanized production of many goods including construction materials, textiles, and home furnishings. The craftsmanship that had previously been a part of each yard of fabric and piece of furniture was replaced by materials that were produced in large factories by immigrants—often children—with little or no training. As was to be expected, the quality of goods declined as the volume increased. At the same time, Victorian period ornamentation was heavy, abundant, and omnipresent.

Before long artists and the social progressives began correlating a decline in craftsmanship and the social fabric. Artists lamented the loss of artisans with age-old skills in furniture making, tilework and pottery, weaving, and woodworking and construction. Intellectuals and the new socialists saw an unraveling in the moral character as factories and factory towns began to draw people to the cities. Loosely banding together, influential artists and thinkers led by John Ruskin and William Morris pressed their peers for a return to natural materials, craftsmanship, and a truer design aesthetic. In Great Britain, this became what we now call the Arts & Crafts movement, which lasted from about 1850 to 1920.

Roycroft Craftsman Copper Bowl
Roycroft Craftsman Copper Bowl

In the US, the effect of this design movement focused on the middle—rather than on the upper-middle—class. Here, most citizens lived in small cities, towns, and more rural areas and enjoyed a relatively comfortable standard of living. In such a democratic setting, it was logical to design for them. Instead of eschewing machinery entirely as Morris advised, the pragmatic American approach incorporated it into the design-build process. This in turn enabled American craftsmen to build more for a larger audience, but provide higher quality goods, and make a living at the same time.

The Arts and Crafts movement was not about a particular style or set of design requirements. It was a design philosophy that prompted specific results when embraced by various designers. Its bedrock was design simplicity coupled with high quality execution that distinguished it from other contemporaneous manufacturers. It derived its artistic forms from various cultures and is particularly notable for cross-pollination between the West and the newly accessible Japanese culture, especially as seen in many French Art Nouveau pieces, for example. Other influences ranged from the British Celtic and medieval traditions to the exotic expressions of the Middle East and Asia.

In 1882, William Morris summed up the core ideal as, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

American Craftsman Influences and Styles

The Arts and Crafts philosophies of William Morris, John Ruskin, and others in Britain and Europe, influenced a number of innovative American designers, architects, and thinkers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, and Elbert Hubbard, to name just a few. Each incorporated the Craftsman philosophy into his design vocabulary and created something new, while retaining—at least to some extent—the community work ethic espoused by the movement.

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most influential and original architects of the 20th century, was true to the materials he employed in his designs. A modern designer in every sense, Wright used the Arts and Crafts ethic to create forms that were clean, elegant, and distinctive whether the design was a piece of furniture, a house, or civic building. Wright is particularly known for what became known as "Prairie School" style architecture.

Stickley Craftsman Mission-style Desk
Stickley Craftsman Mission-style Desk

Gustav Stickley was a furniture maker who began his career making conventional furniture during the late 1890s. After a trip to Britain in the closing years of the 19th century, Stickley returned energized by what he had learned. He began experimenting with Art and Crafts style designs and in 1901 produced the first of "The Craftsman" catalogs. Stickley was a believer in the moral superiority of the evolving Craftsman movement. In the 1910 catalog, he wrote: "I felt that badly constructed, over-ornate, meaningless furniture that was turned out in such quantities by the factories was not only bad in itself, but that its presence in the homes of the people was in influence that led directly away from the sound qualities which make an honest man and a good citizen." Stickley was concerned about making furniture following the Craftsman philsophy that would provide his American market an aesthetic, functional choice that reflected the best in the American character: plain, practical, honest. Stickley's furniture, which he later referred to as "mission style", was often made of oak, with clean, simple lines, that was both functional and built to last centuries.

Roycroft Craftsman Table
Roycroft Craftsman Table

Elbert Hubbard was part entrepreneur-communicator, part evangelist-philosopher. After a prosperous young adulthood, Hubbard was able to retire at the tender age of 36. On a trip to Europe, he met William Morris. From his exposure to Morris's Kelmscott Press printing and publishing business, Hubbard developed the idea of an Arts and Crafts community. When he returned to the US, Hubbard set up the Roycroft Printing Shop in East Aurora, New York. By the early part of the 1900s, the Roycrofters were publishing high quality books, building furniture, and making a variety of iron and copper accessories that were de rigueur in Craftsman homes across the country. Extremely successful in his endeavors, Hubbard and his wife were on their way to Europe on a speaking tour when their ship, the Lusitania, was sunk in 1915.

Craftsman style prevailed from 1905 to 1920 when it finally waned. Since then, it has become incredibly popular, especially among owners of the many small bungalows built during that period. Original Craftsman and mission-style furnishings and accessories have skyrocketed in value. Stickley is still in business making high-quality reproductions of the original designs.

It should be noted that you can often find a nice period piece in the "mission style" but which is not a Craftsman piece. As with any popular style, the mission style was knocked off by many manufacturers. They were easily able to replicate the designs in oak, but the quality in construction is not as high. Such pieces are often much more affordable, though not as desirable.

If buying vintage Craftsman furniture, look for a label, tag, or burn mark. It is relatively rare for a Craftsman piece to be unmarked. However, be cautious. It is possible to buy salvaged tags and see them affixed to lesser pieces. Your best bet is to research the product you are interested in and err on the cautious side, especially if the "brand name" is important to you.

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