Wednesday, January 26, 2011

MISSION MANIA

When I was a kid, the height of furniture fashion was a style called “Danish Modern”.  It wasn’t very comfortable--nor, it turns out, was it even all that Danish.   The chairs were linear, with big slab-like cushions that did a lousy job of conforming to your gluteus maximus.  The tables had a lot of nasty, smack-your-knee-and-see-stars kinds of corners.  But we gladly put up with such discomforts because the stuff was “modern”, and in the 1960s, modern was the only way to be.

Today, of course, we’re much more discriminating.  We admire furniture of the 60s as an appealingly naive emblem of the Jet Age, but by and large we’ve concluded that an older, more storied style is the way to go.  So what do we do?  We adopt a style that’s linear, uncomfortable, and not all that good-looking, and which, even though it’s called Mission, has nothing whatever to do with missions.  But it’s got history, and that’s the thing to have in the Naughties.

Mission furniture has more to do with the late-19th century English Arts and Crafts movement and such proponents as Gustav Stickley and William Morris than it does with the California Missions or Mission Revival architecture.  Early mass marketers of the style, however, preferred to present it as a rough-and-tumble American phenomenon rather than a snooty British one.  
Regardless of Mission’s murky heritage, one thing is crystal clear:  With its sharp corners and church-pew surfaces, it’s certainly among the most uncomfortable furniture styles of the last ten centuries.  It gives Danish Modern and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s chairs a run for the money.  

I know that at this point a lot of designer types will start sputtering in their lattes about what a pioneering concept the Mission style was, what geniuses the Arts and Crafts folks were, and how dare I, a lowly architect and even lowlier writer, criticize such brilliance?  Actually, I agree--the Arts and Crafts folks were indeed geniuses, and if you’ve ever seen the refined artistry of an original Morris or Stickley piece, you’re no doubt as certain as I am.  

Trouble is, the vast majority of Arts and Crafts, er, rather Mission furniture was not made by Morris, Stickley, or any of the other craft studios whose work is rightly coveted these days.  Adhering to the highest standards of craftsmanship naturally made for miniscule production, which in turn ensured that only the wealthy could afford their work.  

At any rate, by the time Mission furniture caught on with the masses, the craft studios had already moved on to other things, leaving the ordinary Joes and Josephines of the early century to settle for knockoffs from Sears and Roebuck.  Now, while using mass production to make products more affordable is a great American tradition, it also brings about an inevitable dilution of quality that eventually saps the artistry from any design.  That’s why a Model T is not a Rolls-Royce.  For the same reason, most of the Mission furniture that’s come down to us is clunky, pedestrian, and literally run-of-the-mill.  

Which brings me back to the current encore of Mission mania.  The style has already become ubiquitous in the media, appearing not only in print but in movies, commercials and sitcoms.  Spindly Mission knockoffs are now standard fare in those giant discount furniture stores.  

You may wonder how long this can last.  For me, the sure sign that a style is on its last legs is when it starts appearing in the lobbies of chain motels.  Well, guess what?
Have a seat in the lobby, folks.  Just mind those sharp corners. 

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