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.

Steve Tengelson has designed custom pieces in a variety of styles for 15 years, and is now wood shop co-ordinator at the Penland School of Crafts in Blue Ridge Mountains, N.C. Tengelson recently built a 17' Mission wall unit for a client with an unusual house layout. When designing, he begins with a basic concept–say, from a Stickley catalogue–then customizes it.

For the wall unit, a finish suited to the existing floor was essential, and a colleague made stunning leaded glass.

So, how do you recreate Mission in your own furniture creations? If you follow Tengelson’s method, you begin with a design that’s clearly in the zone and see if your variations feel consistent. Tengelson doesn’t think you should start with a pleasing design and try to make it Mission: “If it’s not halfway Mission to start with, you’ll probably lose what you originally liked about it.”

There is no rule book for Mission features.
But you can develop your design vocabulary with books such as Designing Furniture (Taunton Press, 2004), Darrell Peart’s Greene and Greene (Linden, 2005), or with any of the magazines devoted to the period: Style 1900, American Bungalow and Arts & Crafts Homes.

Debey Zito takes a more radical approach to Arts and Crafts design, as befits a woman who faced opposition as a cabinetmaker in the 1970s. She is now recognized as a leading Mission interpreter, with clients such as Walt Disney Co., as well as the owners of Greene and Greene’s Blacker House in Pasadena. Her pieces are stunningly beautiful and original, yet true to their Mission origins.

Zito believes a primary element of Arts and Crafts design is that “the method of construction is not hidden.” Dark walnut is one of her favourite woods–it has an even grain for carving, and long grain patterns. This wood is not often used in Mission, however, she is also not reproducing historical pieces; she is designing with inspiration from them.

Zito admires the subtlety and re-straint in Arts and Crafts furniture. She believes your eye should flow around a piece, without becoming fixed on any aspect. “Pieces should help create harmony in an environment,” she says.

She believes jewel points–carving or inlay, for example–are important, but “they shouldn’t steal the show.” She admits there are Asian influences in some of her work, a similarity shared with Greene and Greene’s designs. This feature adds a horizontal flow without clashing with its roots.

The timeless appeal of Mission furniture is obvious when you consider the words used to describe it: pleasing, harmonious and subtle.


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