If you take the time to examine a Shaker and Mission style piece of furniture side-by-side, at first glance, it may be hard to tell the difference. Both styles of furniture present simplicity in form and function, but one main difference between the two is the final finish coat. Shaker furniture was often painted in blues, greens, reds, blues and monochromatic hues or stained; whereas, much of the Mission furniture was simply varnished. Modern versions of both styles are generally not handcrafted any longer; instead, they are made in an industrial setting.
An offshoot of English Quakers -- a protestant religious group -- the Shakers migrated to America in 1774. Once here, they formed self-sufficient communities, growing their own food, making their own tools, and building their own furniture. Like the principles they adhered to, their handcrafted furniture represented honesty and simplicity of design. The Mission style of furniture sprung out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the latter part of 19th century. This furniture shares values in common with Shaker furniture: handcrafted pieces of simple design and form, which is why the two styles are so often confused.
The fundamental differences between the two styles of furniture begin with the wood and end with the finished look of the piece. Shaker furniture comes from the trees, such as maple, cherry and pine, that surrounded the regions where the Shakers settled. Mission furniture, on the other hand, is generally made from oak, which gives the furniture its distinctive wood grains and coloring when varnished. While both styles present simple designs, Mission furniture, in contrast to Shaker furniture, celebrates the value of artistic craftsmanship; whereas, the Shakers felt that artistic embellishments, such as inlays and veneers, were dishonest practices. Shaker drawer pulls, for example, were handcrafted from wood and utilitarian in design.
Shaker Furniture -- No Deceit
If you find an antique piece of Shaker furniture that has not been refinished, it might be painted in colors that adhered to the religious rules of the group: muted reds, yellows, blues, greens or stained. The Shakers modified common designs of the day, emphasizing the utility of the piece they were making. For example, they improved on the trestle table design by removing the lower stretcher member that traditionally sat close to the floor, spanning the distance between the end trestles, and moved it up closer to the tabletop, allowing for leg and feet room beneath the table. Chairs were built to slide under the table when not in use or hang on the wall on their slatted backs.
Mission Furniture -- Spartan Design
Mission furniture focuses on the craftsmanship of its maker, with exposed joinery and heavy wood frames and solid, orderly lines. The furniture's style made a rebellious statement against the extravagance and ornateness of furniture that followed Neoclassical, Rococo and Baroque styles. And Mission furniture was handcrafted in comparison to these industrialized, factory-made styles of furniture. Mission furniture was never painted; instead, it was simply wood-stained and varnished and often included seats made from leather or canvas. Spartan in appearance, Mission furniture also does not contain elaborate carvings or embellishments, which is why it is sometimes confused with Shaker furniture. Mission style is believed to be based on the style of furnishings that outfitted the Franciscan missions of California.
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