Born out of the uniquely American Arts and Crafts movement, Craftsman, or Mission, furniture has a distinctive organic appeal. Individual craftspeople stressed utilitarian design, elegant structure, and handmade joinery to complement the architecture and interior design of Craftsman houses of the early 1900s.
Inspired by the French Art Nouveau and critiquing the British Victorian culture, the Arts and Crafts movement began around 1880 and rose to a popular height in America from 1900-1919. Founding members, such as Gustav Stickley, William Morris, and the Greene and Greene brothers, rejected the ornamentation and grandeur of Victorian décor. They contended that the other contemporary styles disguised structure and accepted cheap reproductions rather than authentic constructions. As the United States moved towards mass-production of household goods, these designers wanted to return to a pre-Industrial individualism which valued talented woodworkers and familiar materials.
Craftsman furniture is easily recognized by open vertical slats, a thick skeleton, and visible tenons in the mortise and tenon joints. Even built-in cabinets and bookcases can be identified by hand-forged, hammer-finished copper hinges and latches. The center for production of this furniture was Grand Rapids, Michigan, as representative of Middle America. There was plenty of hardwood available, most popularly oak. The lumber was quartersawn, a method of cutting planks that shows off the grain. Missing is any unnecessary ornamentation, such as inlaid wood or carving. The design emerges organically from function. A brace called a corbel bracket proves the most ornamental feature, rather than a row of rosettes.
Rustic, durable, and intentionally middle class, Arts and Crafts furniture was meant to improve comfort in the average living room and be passed from one generation to the next. Designed specifically for use in Craftsman houses, the furniture integrates seamlessly into comfortable, well-light, open rooms. Essential pieces would include an oversized Morris chair, with plain leather upholstery, a waist-high sideboard table, and a bookcase with glass panes.
The Craftsman movement paved the way for more lavish design, such as that of Frank Lloyd Wright, who also wanted architecture, furniture, and accessories to feel integrated with their surroundings. Arts and Crafts also has undeniable ties to the Shaker philosophy and style, which emphasized simplicity and heirloom quality.