Tips for Identifying Mission-Style Furniture

Attributes and Makers of a Popular Arts and Crafts Style

Mission Style Desk, c. 1905
Mission Style Desk, c. 1905. Harp Gallery Antique Furniture on RubyLane.com

As part of the Arts and Crafts movement that flourished in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, furniture made of oak with simple lines and minimal embellishment became extremely popular, especially during the first quarter of the 20th century. The style was named "Mission" during its heyday since it was supposedly based on furniture found in the Franciscan missions in California, according to American Funiture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds by Marvin D. Schwartz. This type of furniture is also sometimes known as "Mission Oak," since it was most often crafted of oak wood, and also as "Craftsman" style.

Characteristics of Mission Furniture

The distinctive characteristics of Mission-style furniture, popular from about 1900 through 1925, are easy to recognize:

  • Lines will be simple and straight for the most part, with very few curves and no ornate carving. Any carving usually takes the shape of inconspicuous linear grooves.
  • Elements are most often chunky and flat or squared. The overall look is heavy, and some see it as quite masculine. 
  • The squared Marlborough leg was the norm for Mission furniture and decorative feet were rarely used. Any foot that is present—on a pedestal dining table for instance—is usually block or modified block in style. 
  • Chair and settee backs usually have a series of vertical boards, also known as stiles, across the area where the back would rest. Many chairs, including rockers, had leather seats.

While Mission pieces, in general, may have exposed pegs or tenon ends, decorative elements are very much kept to a minimum in the tradition of Arts & Crafts styling. Brasses and hinges used were very basic, but they do add a distinctive touch of flair to desks and sideboards.

The wood used in Mission furniture is oak in most cases. Colors vary from piece to piece and maker to maker, but they are often light to medium in ​finish and many have darkened with age.

Originators of Mission-Style Furniture

Mission furniture is very often associated with Gustav Stickley. He was no doubt the master of this simple style and his work is considered to be some of the most important. But Gustav Stickley, who referred to his work as Craftsman style, had a number of competitors, including his own brothers and other furniture makers such s Charles Limbert and Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft community.

Gustav Stickley, who was an architect and publisher in addition to a furniture designer, believed that the "mission" of furniture was to be made well, comfortable to use, and sensible. Stickley founded what would become Craftsman Workshops in 1898, and by 1900 his production was fully integrated into the larger Arts and Crafts style movement. Stickley made his practical furniture in Eastwood, New York through 1916, and promoted his wares in his own magazine, The Craftsman.

In the truest sense, however, Charles Limbert’s simple-yet-sturdy furniture (the pieces without an overly Dutch influence) probably came closest to what Mission styling was all about. His pieces used thinner stiles (the vertical elements as used in chair backs) when compared to the thicker components Gustav Stickley and others employed crafting this type of furniture.

Five Stickley brothers, including Gustav, eventually made Mission-style furniture. Of them, L & J.G. Stickley's designs followed in Gustav’s footsteps the most closely, although Leopold and John George tended to incorporate more flowing curves than found in the craftsmanship of their older brother. 

Mission Style Furniture as Collectibles

It is important to keep in mind that most Mission style furniture was mass-produced, and not all pieces are of the caliber of Gustav Stickley’s work, nor or they as desirable among collectors. Many of the pieces made by lesser manufacturers are not particularly well designed, according to furniture expert Marvin D. Schwartz. While not in the caliber of pieces crafted by the hand of Gustav Stickley himself, the furniture produced by the companies owned by Gustav’s brothers or Limbert, do have value. Most pieces bearing the brand of one of these businesses hold their own quite well in the secondary marketplace.

The most special Mission-influenced furniture pieces were made by members of the Arts and Crafts societies going strong in the early 1900s. Other architect-designed furniture by those such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Henry Greene combined Mission, Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau elements in their eclectic designs. These are among the most valuable to own today.