Sunday, March 20, 2011

Arts & Crafts / Mission Style

I decided to take a look at Arts & Crafts style furniture, to find a little background on the style, find what defines it, and see how it differs from other styles such as furniture listed as Mission style.

The history is kind of interesting really and I have to admit I find it a bit ironically amusing. To understand Mission furniture though, we need to start with the Arts & Crafts movement. We will also have to discuss a little politics along the way.  Sorry, we have to. It's part of the story.  The Arts & Crafts movement came prominence in Europe starting about 1880 and continued into the early 20th century.  It caught on a little later in the U.S. and was a period bookended by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements here.  Arts & Crafts started in England with William Morris (1834-1896) and was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin.  The movement was a reaction and a rejection of both the Victorian style of ornamentation as well as industrialization. Hence it was more simple in form, with little in the way of ornamentation  The emphasis instead was on the craftsmanship of how it was made and the quality of the materials used in the construction. The style itself spread across architecture, woodworking, pottery, silver and other metal smithing, and jewelry making. William Morris also started a firm making wall paper, furniture, stained glass, and textiles in the theme.  Frankly, you can probably find evidence of the style in an even wider swath if you look.  I told you that we would dip a bit into politics and here we are.  While it is tempting to disassociate the decor and architecture movement from the societal trends of the time in which it rose, it would be a disservice to do so.  When you look at the rise of a style of decor (be it Arts  & Crafts, Art Deco, Georgian Revival, etc.), you will almost, if not always, find societal shifts occurring at the same time.  After all, something drives these decor changes and people's taste in them.  The decor in your house reflects your personality, doesn't it?  If you are a rural, country person, your house is probably not decorated with tin ceilings, velvet texture on the wall, and a bunch of Louie XVI furniture.  If you are a modern urbanite, your house is probably not furnished in a cottage or primitive style.  If you are a college student, your house is probably furnished with mis-matching couches and anything you could find for free or less than $5. But I digress. The Arts & Crafts movement was heavily tied to and influenced by socialism.  William Morris started as a member of the Radical Union and the National Liberal League, became disillusioned with the National Liberal League in 1883 and joined the socialist Democratic Federation, then formed the Socialist League after a fall out with the Democratic Federation's leader.  Morris later also went on to form the Hammersmith Socialist Society.  As the Arts & Crafts movement spread, many associations, craft co-operatives, and art colonies opened.  Social experimentation and movements towards social reform were often at the heart of these groups in reaction to the industrial movement of the time. While the Arts & Crafts movement started in the 1800's, it didn't really catch on in the U.S. until about the same time that we see progressivism rise politically here.  While the movement here had less socialist undercurrents, it is worth noting that one of the first instances that the movement really jelled together here was the Arts and Crafts Society at the Hull House (one of the first American settlement houses for social reform) in Chicago.  Fewer Utopian societal communities sprang up here than was seen in Europe, but there were some. Rose Valley in Moylan, Pennsylvania leaps to mind.  Once reaching our shores, a wide group of people were influenced by the style and adopted at least portions of it.  Frank Lloyd Wright was heavily influenced by it and you can see Arts & Crafts themes in his Prairie School style.   Several others were as well, but we are trying to focus on furniture at the moment.  We are also trying to focus a little more on brevity (too late, I know), which is also why we skimmed the societal implications surrounding the movement as much as we did.

So working our way back to furniture, one of the most prominent American furniture makers in the Arts & Crafts style was Gustav Stickley.  Some of you would read the name and say, "Ah Ha! I remember him.  He made Mission furniture."  Mr. Stickley would have disagreed with you and in fact, despised the term.  With that being said, the two styles started differently and kind of grew towards each other in the U.S.  Some will hotly disagree with me on this point, but it is easier to see their similarities than it is to see their differences.    Both preferred solid wood construction, often times using quarter sawn white oak (we will get into what exactly that is some other day).  Walnut and cherry are slowly working their way into the style as well, but white oak is still king and most common for either style.  Both styles feature simple design and very little in the way of ornamentation.   Both were heavier, stockier furniture with more emphasis on straight lines in their design.  In fact both share philosophical commonalities in that they were a reaction to (and rejection of) industrial construction techniques and ornate Victorian style furniture.

While the Arts & Crafts movement started in Europe and included a social reform aspect to it, Mission furniture started on the west coast of the U.S. and does not appear to have any further social implication other than a reflection of style eschewing commercial construction and ornate detail.  Mission furniture as a term was started by Joseph McHugh in 1895 and the style was based upon a chair that had been designed for the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in San Fransisco. The chair was a simple design with a rush seat and was influenced by the Spanish missions of the area.  That's where the name comes from.  Yep, the whole style started with one chair for a church in California. Just like the Arts & Crafts movement grew from furnishing one house (William Morris' Red House). 

So, now to try to explain the differences.  Well, some say that there isn't any.  Some say that Mission grew out of the Arts & Crafts movement.  I found one that said that Arts & Crafts furniture grew out of Mission.  Where you end on the debate seems to depend upon where you started as much as anything else.  Furthermore, nobody seems all that excited to give a clear definition of what makes a piece of furniture Mission instead of Arts & Crafts or vise versa.  Arts & Crafts author, Bruce Johnson says that Mission is more simple in design and more cheaply made. Whereas Arts & Crafts furniture has a more developed design and is better made.  Hey! There's a bright line of distinction! Get the idea? So I guess I'll go out on a bit of a limb here and suggest how to tell if a piece of furniture leans one direction or another ( I certainly wouldn't suggest that they are interchangeable. There would be too many people who would get their undies into far too big of a bunch about how the differences are obvious and how the which ever one they prefer is superior.).  Arts & Crafts furniture tends to showcase joinery as a decorative element, is more likely to incorporate curves (although not many), and is more likely to go in a direction that is lighter in terms of both color and mass.  Now having said that, you can find plenty of dark, blocky Arts & Crafts furniture (just look up Morris Chair, which is defiantly Arts & Crafts).  I'm also sure that you can find furniture that the builder swears is Mission and has a decorative curved pattern incorporated.  So if my explanation of the differences doesn't seem very clear, well......  Hey, maybe next I'll go into the differences between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.  It's easier.

Oh, remember waaaay back at the beginning where I mentioned that I found part of this subject ironically amusing? Well remember, both styles were a rejection of mass produced furniture.  A rejection of furniture made out of cheap, man-made materials instead of solid wood.  A rejection of furniture made in factories with machines instead of by craftsmen by hand.  Now you can go to many a big box retailer and find both styles of furniture (or at least furniture that may well have both Mission and Arts & Crafts in the description).  That furniture is made how exactly?