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Photo above courtesy of Craftsman Auctions Lambertvilte/David Ra go and Jerry Cohen.

The difference between the terms Mission, Prairie and Arts & Crafts has mystified woodworkers for years, so we set out to seek some simple truths about each style. It turns out that the major figures in these movements thought their work brought Truth, with a capital T, into the home — and that defining each term separately isn't so simple.

By Joanna Werch Takes

Gustav Stickley's Morris chair (above) could trace its origin to 19th century England's Arts & Crafts movement. Forms and materials from nature inspired designs; construction might incorporate handworked materials in wood, glass or textiles. The influence extended even to Art Nouveau designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who made the chairs at right.

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Kathfriue HW¿f/ 1 Virginia Museum uf Fine Arts, Riehiiwnel. Gift of Sydney am! ¡''ranees ¡.rit :

Art Nouveau Construction

The genesis of these various styles was the Arts & Crafts movement. While Mission and Prairie had their disciples, even these artisans pledged allegiance to Arts & Crafts. More than a style, Arts & Crafts is an attitude.

Its prophet was Englishman William Morris, who dropped out of Oxford seminary after deciding he could save more souls through the decorative and applied arts. Instead of debasing themselves at the machines of the Industrial Revolution, Morris's followers would create handcrafted items of practical beauty.

Their customers were also supposed to find their work uplifting. As designer Charles Voysey wrote, "Cold vegetables are less harmful than ugly dish covers. One affects the body and the other affects the soul."

The natural materials and exposed construction associated with Arts & Crafts furniture express the value Morris and his followers placed on traditional techniques. In addition, elements of gothic and medieval design and occasional folk art decorations reflect the movement's reverence for history and for designs accessible to the masses. Some Arts & Crafts designers even explored Japanese or Italian Renaissance influences.

What all of them had in common was a view of their work as art, not mass production. They created furniture, textiles, stained glass and other media with this concept in mind, and, to carry their message to the world, Morris and his committee named their 1880s organization the Arts & Crafts the ideal hoae 15 one in which the eaaily my be /aost coapletely sheltered to develop in love, graciousness and individuality. and which

The Morris chair was named for Arts & Crafts guru William Morris, although it was his friend Philip Webb who actually created them. Gustav Stickley made this example of the large armchair with adjustable back and removable cushions.

Museum of Art. Purchased with the Director's Discretionary Fund, 1971.

Photo courtesy Craftsman Auctions Lambertvith/ David Rago and Jerry Cohen

This Gustav Stickley drop-leaf table employs cathedral shaped cut-outs as a decorative element

Museum of Art. Purchased with the Director's Discretionary Fund, 1971.

Exhibition Society. 'The aim," as Hobby Horse magazine stated in 1884, "is to render all branches of Art the sphere, no longer of the tradesman, but of the artist."

England's Arts & Crafts artists supported each other with publications, a network of guilds,

Photo courtesy Craftsman Auctions Lambertvith/ David Rago and Jerry Cohen

This Gustav Stickley drop-leaf table employs cathedral shaped cut-outs as a decorative element and even a number of communal societies. Later, when the movement reached American shores in the 1890s, all these aspects went with it.

The Mission Style

Among those preaching the Arts & Crafts gospel of good design in the U.S.A. were the Mission furniture makers. That's not the name the designers would have chosen, but it caught on after New York salesman J.P. McHugh used it to sell a line of furniture patterned after a California chair. McHugh encouraged stories that the original chair had come from an old Spanish mission.

Despite disliking the name, the American designers did view themselves as missionaries of a sort. Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft crafters' community, asked people to call him "Fra Elbertus" and published An American Bible to dispense his brand of practical wisdom. Gustav Stickley, the best-known Mission designer, used his Craftsman magazine as a pulpit.

Influenced by an 1898 trip to Morris's England, Stickley wrote, "We must support an art created by the people for the people ... an art wherein the designer and the craftsman shall be one and the same individual, creating for his own pleasure and unassailed by commercialism."

The Mission furniture designs themselves incorporated morals: some of Stickley's heavier pieces, for instance, symbolized stability. If you couldn't budge the sideboard, the logic went, you would have a strong marriage. The lack of excessive ornaments and the exposed construction details, like tenons,

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dovetails and butterfly joints, were supposed to make the furniture more "honest." Straight lines and solid vertical and horizontal members were also characteristic of the style.

When selecting materials to express this style, Mission designers often looked to Mother Nature. Stickley noted that oak, the style's wood of choice, adapted well to Mission's simplicity — and that the simplicity showed off the natural character of the tree. Other Mission crafts also emphasized the

The Morris chair was named for Arts & Crafts guru William Morris, although it was his friend Philip Webb who actually created them. Gustav Stickley made this example of the large armchair with adjustable back and removable cushions.

Photo at left: Ron Jennings, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Sydney and Frances Leu>is. Photo below courtesy of Craftsman Auctions Lambertrrille/David Rago and Jerry Cohen

Photo at left: Ron Jennings, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Sydney and Frances Leu>is. Photo below courtesy of Craftsman Auctions Lambertrrille/David Rago and Jerry Cohen

The Roycroft crafters lived in a communal society in New York state, where their woodworkers produced pieces like the magazine pedestal at far left and the sewing stand shown in the photo at left.

connection to nature: leather, wool and linen fabrics were popular textiles. Natural elements appear in some of the decorative motifs as well; stylized florals and geometric repeats were both common.

In making their furniture and crafts, several Mission designers did use machines. They still paid homage to the Arts & Crafts idealization of handmade items, though, by courting at least a handmade appearance for any hardware or ornaments — like hammered copper drawer pulls.

Although Mission is most closely identified with furniture, some of the designers tried to extend these concepts to the houses that would hold the furniture. Stickley, for example, published Craftsman home plans that employed materials indigenous to their location: pine, oak and limestone in the Midwest, for example, and redwood in California.

The Prairie Style

This is where Prairie comes in. Like Mission, it's an offshoot of the Arts & Crafts movement. Prairie's strength, however, is architecture.

Prairie architects designed homes that fit into their natural surroundings — like low, horizontal houses that conformed to the flatness of the prairie. Blueprints provided interaction with nature through porches and patios, and rooms flowed into one another to encourage informal gatherings. Most important, however, was the concept of unity: between the exterior and the interior, between the interior and the furniture. 'The whole must always be considered as an integral unit," wrote noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

To create this unity — based on the Arts & Crafts desire for a harmonious whole — Prairie architects sometimes became Prairie furniture makers. Their creations were usually specific designs for specific houses, and they often incorporated Japanese influences.

Although Prairie furniture generally had a rectilinear, geometric base, it frequently displayed rhythmically repeated slats, radiated stretchers, mullioned case pieces and an Oriental "cloud" shape in bracings. When brothers Charles and Henry Greene revealed the structure of their Prairie furniture, they did so in a delicate manner that owed more to Japanese aesthetics than the brash aspect of Mission's exposed construction.

Prairie architects, who had their heyday in the 1910s and teens, also moved away from the faith of the Arts & Crafts fathers on the subject of the machine. For them, machines represented not a symbol of the apple corrupting Eden, as they had to William Morris, but a tool that freed designers to concentrate more on creativity.

Photo courtesy of Craftsman Auctions Lambertvitle/David Rago and Jerry Cohen.

Photo courtesy of Craftsman Auctions Lambertvitle/David Rago and Jerry Cohen.

Warm, natural or handworked materials were important to Gustav Stickley, who put a leather seat and cushions on the settle at left and copper pulls on the oak sideboard above.

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The furniture designs inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright — and other Prairie architects — were usually meant for a specific location. These oak pieces include a desk (above) for the Coonley House (built by George Niedecken) and an arm-chair for the Evans House.

Photos courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago

Still, even the Prairie designers worshipped at the Arts & Crafts altar. Frank Lloyd Wright said in 1904, "[Morris] did sublime work ... when he fought the innate vulgarity of theocratic impulse in art as opposed to democratic; and when he preached the gospel of simplicity."

The Spirit Lives On

Ironically, in bringing art to the masses, Wright, the other Prairie architects, and his colleagues in the Mission and Arts & Crafts

■ir w£, our children and our successors, are tose true citizens and integral parts of the cottflonweaiith we ttust choose carefully the objects by which we surround ourselves" - GUSTAV STICKÜEY

Photos courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago

movements exercised their own theocratic impulses: their designs expressed what they considered divine.

Simplicity, democracy, tradition and nature were their ideals. It's arguable how well they practiced what they preached (Wright and Morris created designs only the wealthy could afford), but the Arts & Crafts designers and their Mission and Prairie apostles all thought a well-designed chair, for example, wasn't just good for the seat, it was good for the spirit.

George Grant Elmslie's mahogany tall clock, with its brass inlay and bronze, demonstrates the rectilinear qualities of the Prairie style.

At the dawn of the 21st century, bookstores are filled with spiritual tomes and the search for simple living. Like our counterparts a century ago, we're facing rapid technological changes that propel us into the future, while we gaze wistfully at an idyllic view of the past. We've resurrected a respect for handcrafting and for past traditions, including feng shui, an ancient science of furniture arrangement which, its proponents say, brings unity and morality into the home.

All these facets of our modern life touch on issues which the arts and crafts of a hundred years ago are ready to address. In this atmosphere, it's no wonder that those designs crafted with a mission still hold such appeal. @

Photo: Ron Jennings & Virginia Museum of Pine Arts, Richmond, The Sydney and Frances Lewis Endowment Fund.

Photo: Ron Jennings & Virginia Museum of Pine Arts, Richmond, The Sydney and Frances Lewis Endowment Fund.

with copper, pewter and mother-of-pearl details.
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