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Mission Furniture Style Guide

A look at the mission style of furniture and how to bring it home.

Mission style furniture is often believed to be traced back to the 1890s, when the Spanish missions flourished in California during the state’s colonial period. While there are similarities between “mission style” and the California missions, the two are, in fact, not related.

The real story revolves around New York! (Well, a New Yorker, to be particular.) Joseph McHugh was a New York furniture retailer and manufacturer in the early 1900s. He owned a popular furniture store (which was actually called ‘The Popular Shop’). McHugh saw a photo one day taken of the interior of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco; he immediately loved the chairs in the photo and replicated them – and called them “mission style.” The term stuck even though the style had nothing to do with the California missions and were made in New York.

The Basics of Mission Style Furniture

A few of the elements intertwined with the mission aesthetic include:

  • Straight Lines. This style of furniture is no-nonsense. You’ll see straight lines for legs and flat surfaces for tables and counters – usually void of tabletop decor.
  • 90-degree Angles. Speaking of straight lines – we mean straight lines. No tapering, 100% right angles.
  • Wood Material. Wood was an all-purpose material back in the late 19th century and used for just about every furniture piece imaginable.
  • Exposed Framework/Grain Pattern. Simplicity is key here. The style lives in the basics of each furniture piece – structural framework and all
  • Heavy-Duty Mission style furniture lives by a simple philosophy – it doesn’t celebrate “redecorating.” During its popularity in the early 1900s, the pieces of furniture the average American owned had to last entire lifetimes and so were made with incredibly durable solid wood.
  • Handcrafted Aesthetic. Today, there’s a new wave of mission style furniture. Its simplicity lives in stark contrast with the hyper-buzzing world we live in; The pieces found in furniture stores may not always be handcrafted like they were in the 19th century, but the charming handcrafted aesthetic remains.
  • Practical Uses Each furniture item had one of two uses: to store things or to give someone a place to rest. Fluff, inspiration and imagination were all but obsolete – at least when it came to furniture.

Mission Style Furniture as Counterculture

Throughout history, there have always been counter-movements. In the U.S. in the 1960s, it was ‘the hippies,’ countering the Vietnam War, establishment and nuclear weapons. In Europe in the 1850s, it was ‘the bohemians,’ countering orthodox viewpoints and conventional lifestyles. In California in the 1890s, it was “mission style” – a style of furniture whose extreme simplicity was, among other things, a response to the excessive decoration of the popularity of the Victorian style.

Today, we live in a social media-driven world, where color and aesthetic bombard our screens: The bolder the color and aesthetic, the more likely they are to grab our attention in our feeds. In a sense, decorating a home in the mission style – plain, neutral – can also be viewed as counterculture. It brings a quiet contrast to the decorative flurry, and in doing so, makes a bolder, more rebellious statement than the latest Insta-trend ever could.

What’s the Difference Between Mission and Craftsman?

There are a few terms for furniture styles – “mission,” “craftsman,” “arts and crafts,” “shaker” and “Amish” – which are often used interchangeably. The truth is that each of these terms refers to a distinct and separate definition. Here’s the difference between each:

  • Mission. The style brought to popularity by Joseph P. McHugh, the NY furniture retailer and manufacturer. It is defined by clean lines, straight edges, right angles and generous use of wood.
  • Craftsman. An industry term for the furniture produced by Gustav Stickley, a pioneer of handmade furniture in the early 1900s. This style looks very much like mission and can often accurately be used to describe a mission furniture piece.
  • Arts and Crafts. A more general term, referring to the greater culture revolving around the arts-and-crafts style. Architecture and art is included.
  • Shaker. A term for the wood-heavy aesthetic (similar to mission – but with more tapered legs and curved edges) designed by the Shaking Quakers religious group.
  • Amish. A blanket term referring to both shaker and mission style of furniture.

Mission Style – with a Modern Edge

Today, mission style furniture remains popular, if for no other reason than it’s a peaceful escape from the techno-crazed world. Here are a few ways to incorporate the style into a 21st-century home.

  • Keep the clean lines, ditch the light finish. A darker stain feels more modern and will even bring out the hard lines of the mission style.
  • Incorporate more storage. The mission look favored simplicity, but didn’t always make the best use of space. For example, coffee tables were often, simply, coffee tables; today, coffee tables are designed a little cleverer, with lift tops and hidden storage – and can easily be incorporated into the mission aesthetic.
  • Make it smart. Just because a nightstand looks Amish-inspired doesn’t mean it can’t charge your phone while you sleep! Today’s innovative uses of tech-smart furniture – like furniture with USB ports – can bring a modern touch to any aesthetic.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Articles featuring tips and advice are intended for educational purposes and only as general recommendations. Always practice personal discretion when using and caring for furniture, decor and related items.