A sense of mission With its emphasis on function over form and simplicity over extravagance, Mission-style furniture is gaining a new generation of admirers.

April 06, 1997|By Maria Hiaasen | Maria Hiaasen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It tends to be heavy, not frilly. It's simple, not fancy. It has rows of vertical or horizontal slats, not curves and scrolls. Mission-style furniture, which dotted the country in bungalows and cottages around the turn of the century, has not only come back, it's going mainstream. Mission furniture -- similar to a Spanish-style chair first found in California's Franciscan missions now appears in colonials and rowhouses, condominiums and apartments.

Maybe it's just the right furniture for our time.

"There's so much confusion in the world, a lot of people like simplicity in their homes," says Daphne Liggins, a buyer for Royal Furniture Co. "It's a psychological thing," she says. "It's the baby boomer tired of working so hard, wanting to come home and relax. It's the Generation Xers finding there's more to life than fast cars and pretty women."

Furniture makers see Mission's simplicity as a trend likely to continue.

"We're moving into minimalism in home furnishings," says Fred Isenhower, vice president of National Mount Airy Furniture, maker of the Mission Valley line. "We're showing a conservative side. It's like a woman in a black sheath dress with a string of pearls: That's enough."

Not surprising, says John Brinkmann, publisher of American Bungalow magazine. "We've been through the excesses of the '80s. This is the computer era, and we're all online. But people are fascinated with simple, honest things."

You may not know it by name, but you'd recognize the William Morris chair, named for the late-19th-century English poet, designer and promoter of an uncluttered lifestyle. It's the quintessential Mission piece: wooden arms with leather seat and back cushions, vertical slats along the sides, horizontal slats supporting the chair back. It's so casual, it almost looks like porch furniture. Yet it looks smart on a sisal rug or a wooden floor and settles just as nicely beside a sloppy slipcovered sofa as beneath an Andy Warhol reprint.

Mission has appeared in specialty catalogs such as Crate and Barrel for about a decade. This season, showroom furniture companies (among them Bassett, Broyhill, Drexel Heritage, Henredon, National Mount Airy) are adding Mission-style pieces to their more traditional lines at low, mid-range and high-end prices. Mission furniture by Michael's Co. appears beside the sleek designs at Scandinavian International. You'll even spot the Mission influence at Target, Ikea and in L. L. Bean's Furnishings for Your Home and Camp catalog.

The big name in Mission still thrives. L. and J. G. Stickley Inc. produces handcrafted Mission furniture in Manlius, N.Y. The company was started in 1900 by Leopold and John George Stickley, brothers of Mission's founder, Gustav Stickley. After omitting their Mission line for decades, the company reissued 33 original Stickley designs in 1989.

"It was a risk. It was a leap of faith," says Aminy Audi, who co-owns the company with her husband. "At the beginning, some dealers weren't sure how to handle it."

The risk paid off. Today, the company carries more than 300 Mission designs, including computer tables and king-sized beds, all in solid white oak or wild black cherry. Workers at the factory sand and finish the furniture by hand, and loyal, high-end customers don't mind waiting for it.

But purists aren't the only ones buying Mission. "Mission does well because it's versatile," says Valerie Covarrubias, a Crate and Barrel representative. "It's clean and straightforward. You can make it look the period, or you can go modern."

Crate and Barrel's Mission line began with a bed and has expanded to include more than a dozen pieces, including an entertainment center, armoire and coffee table. The company's William Morris Collection features a sofa with three back cushions that tilt separately. The furniture is simple and easy to care for: The oil-finished cherry needs to be oiled (not polished) one to three times a year.

In Baltimore, where oak is considered a more casual wood and where 18th-century furniture styles still reign, Mission hasn't soared, says Hank Shofer, president of Shofer's Furniture. But he says it's not unusual for a customer to request a single Mission piece, like a bed. (The store carries National Mount Airy's Mission Valley line.) Shofer credits Mission's classic style.

"It's its own look. It's not a hodgepodge, not a rehash of something else. It's a fresh look that lends itself to mixing with other styles."

The natural look

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