Though the history of Mission-style furniture is a well-documented and straightforward affair, the name itself contributes to some confusion regarding the style’s origin and how it came about.
There’s no mistaking the style, which places durability and functionality ahead of looks in a way that undeniably implies the mission aesthetic, but that assumption also serves to muddy the issue.
But, it does have SOMETHING to do with Spanish missions, right?
Nope, not really.
Many suspect the style is rooted in designs found in the Spanish missions that were established from the 15th to 19th centuries throughout the American south and southwest – and that is indeed a reasonable assumption given Mission furniture’s no-nonsense construction – but the two are mostly unrelated.
The Mission Revival Style was an American architectural movement linked to Spanish missions, and it occurred during the same period in history, but it didn’t have anything to do with Spanish furniture styles.
So, why does it look like furniture you’d find in a mission?
Mission-style furniture arose in the late 19th century in the U.S. as a stylistic rebuke of Victorian ostentation. American designers were tired of all the filigree and fluff, and opted for a more utilitarian design approach.
This occurred during the American Arts and Crafts movement, which broadly influenced the applied arts and architecture, and ushered in a shift from elaborate design to an appeal for the handcrafted simplicity found in Craftsman and Mission furniture.
Okay, but why describe it as mission (aka church) furniture in the first place?
Believe it or not, it all boils down to marketing. Back in 1895, a New York furniture maker named Joseph P. McHugh described a simple chair he made as a “Mission” style at his shop, and later in his displays at the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901.
The funny thing is that the design wasn’t even his – he lifted it from a guy out in San Francisco named A.J. Forbes some years prior to the aforementioned expo, which helped make the style famous.
Even so, it was McHugh who made the name stick, much to the consternation of other furniture makers at the time, like Gustav Stickley, who felt the name was (surprise, surprise) too misleading.