The History and Design of Mission Furniture

Originally Published on June 14, 2024. Last Updated on June 14, 2024.

Mission-style furniture has a rich heritage and unique features that make it a standout choice in design. If you’re considering adding this style to your outdoor space, it’s a good idea to know more about it first. Outdoor furniture is a considerable investment, and understanding Mission style can go a long way in helping you make informed shopping choices for your home. 

What Is Mission Style?

POLYWOOD Mission 3-Piece Farmhouse Dining Set in Mahogany
Featured: Mission 3-Piece Farmhouse Dining Set in Mahogany

Mission style is an American design aesthetic that emerged in the late 19th century. It’s characterized by clean, straight lines and minimal details, with a focus on functionality and simplicity. Pieces were traditionally built with quarter-sawn white oak and feature exposed joinery, honoring quality craftsmanship and the beauty of natural wood.

The History of Mission Style

Mission style originated in the U.S. during the late 19th century. A single person didn’t invent the distinctive aesthetic but rather evolved over time, shaped by various designers and movements.

New York furniture designer Gustav Stickley played a key role in creating Mission-style furniture, and American furniture craftsmen A.J. Forbes and Joseph P. McHugh are credited with refining and popularizing the design in the 1890s. McHugh is credited with coining the term “Mission furniture,” as the design was inspired by the simple and functional wooden seats found in Spanish missions throughout the Southwest.

Mission furniture was a countermovement against Victorian design, a European-born aesthetic many believed to be overly ornate. The ideas Mission style represented were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, an international initiative that stressed the importance of natural materials and visible craftsmanship.

Key Characteristics

At its core, Mission design is about simplicity. The aesthetic is clean and straightforward, with minimal details. The straight lines primarily featured in the aesthetic create balance and harmony.

How to identify Mission-style furniture.

Traditional styles are mostly built with quarter-sawn oak, a hardwood prized for its unique grain pattern that brings depth and character to the look. The focus on visible craftsmanship means that furniture joints, hardware, and construction techniques are often left exposed, honoring the artistry and skill behind each piece. 

What's the difference between Mission, Shaker & Craftsman furniture?
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Traditional Materials and Wood Types

Hardwoods were the preferred materials for Mission-style designs because of their natural beauty and durability. Quarter-sawn white oak was the most popular choice, but furniture makers also used cherry, brown maple, and walnut.

What is quarter sawing?

Quarter sawing is a wood-cutting technique. Lumber is cut with the annual growth rings running perpendicular to the surface, resulting in boards with a straight grain that often features a unique pattern known as medullary rays or “ray fleck.”

White oak: The most common Mission-style furniture material, white oak is a light-colored hardwood with exceptional durability. The detailed grain pattern resulting from quarter sawing is the most prominent in white oak, making it the preferred material for Mission designs.

Cherry: A sturdy and stylish hardwood, cherry has a warm, tawny hue that adds elegance to Mission-style designs. Cherry ages gracefully, darkening and developing a rich patina over time, making it a favorite among craftspeople.

Brown maple: Versatile and durable, brown maple offers a lighter appearance and subtle grain pattern. It’s the preference of woodworkers and designers who want furniture with a less pronounced texture.

Walnut: Walnut boasts a dark chocolate hue, a dramatic contrast to the lighter woods mentioned above. The deep, dramatic tone lends an air of sophistication to Mission designs, and the high durability makes it a preferred furniture-crafting material.

Identifying “True” Mission Style

POLYWOOD Mission 7-Piece Parsons Dining Set in White
Featured: Mission 7-Piece Parsons Dining Set in White

Identifying Mission furniture can be difficult due to design elements that overlap with Arts & Crafts and Craftsman styles. Pay attention to the following details to learn how to spot an authentic piece.

Ornamentation: Mission style is simplistic and spartan, offering minimal decorative elements. Furniture featuring decorative elements represents another design aesthetic.

Materials: Traditional Mission designs are made of hardwood, most commonly quarter-sawn white oak, with dark metal hardware. Pieces built from softwood, aluminum, wrought iron, or plastic with light-colored hardware aren’t the real deal.

Joinery: Exposed joinery is a mainstay of Mission style, showcasing the skill involved in construction. If the joinery is covered, it’s safe to assume that the furniture features a different design or is inauthentic.

Price: Whether brand new or antique, genuine Mission-style furniture is expensive. The high-quality materials and craftsmanship dictate the increased cost.

Terminology: Mission style’s popularity has resulted in a bevy of products loosely labeled as “Mission” or “Mission-inspired.” While these items might include some elements, such as straight lines or slats, they often miss the design principles and craftsmanship that define genuine Mission furniture.

Popularity & Evolution

Fading & Revival

Though wildly popular in the late 19th century, consumers lost interest in Mission-style furniture around the 1920s and 1930s as new styles emerged. However, the aesthetic was revived in the 1970s when homeowners gained a renewed appreciation for craftsmanship and a yearning for yesteryear—the nostalgia and simplicity that Mission design embodied.

Modern Appeal & Interpretations

Mission style remains popular to this day. Its mix of practicality and sleek lines merges beautifully with a variety of contemporary motifs, and designers keep discovering ways to blend its signature elements—like exposed joinery and natural wood—into up-and-coming aesthetics. Through change and creativity, we’re honoring the style’s history and ensuring its longevity. 

The draw of Mission furniture extends to collectors as well. Original Craftsmen-era pieces hold high monetary and sentimental value, emphasizing this iconic furniture style’s enduring appeal and quality.

Regional Influences

While Mission furniture remained rooted in its design ethos as the decades passed, regional influences from places like California caused evolutions to branch off and grow. Here, designers infused Spanish motifs, native trees like redwood, and lighter finishes than what’s seen in traditional Mission pieces. This flexibility led to a different design that offers a classic feel with a distinct Californian flair.

Mission Style in Modern-Day Decor

Mission style’s versatility and timeless appeal allow it to integrate easily into today’s home decor themes. The clean, straight lines complement sleek and minimalist aesthetics, especially those with an earthy palette or neutral color scheme.

On the other hand, stained glass accents pair well with Mission-style furniture—a charming and colorful contrast. The richness and warmth of Mission oak are still favored, providing an iconic look that withstands the test of trends and time.

POLYWOOD’s Sustainable Mission Collection

Our Mission Collection blends the best parts of Mission style with sustainable materials and practices. Every piece embodies our commitment to quality craftsmanship and a cleaner planet. Built using recyclable HDPE plastic, our Mission-inspired collection not only echoes the enduring elegance of the iconic American design but also promises season after season of lasting comfort and durability.

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