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Shaker vs Mission - Amish Furniture Buying Guide

It might seem like all Amish furniture fits into one category and they do share similarities but that’s not quite the case. One of the aspects that makes each Amish piece unique is the fact that they’re all handcrafted, however, that’s not all. Even when it comes to style, Amish furniture comes in two unique styles: Shaker and Mission.

Both Shaker and Mission styles share several similarities and they may seem similar to the untrained eye though there are defining characteristics that set them apart. When it comes to history, both have a unique history and quite interesting origin stories.

History Of Shaker And Mission Style Furniture

To give you a complete idea of how Shaker and Mission styles differ from one another and what makes them unique, we’re going to start by glancing a little at their respective histories.

The History of Shaker Furniture

Originally the shakers were a group of radical English Quakers. Although they referred to themselves by something quite formal, the name “Shaker” was given to them because of a religious worship method that involved shaking of the hands, arms, and head. The group left the Church of England and came to America in the 1770s.

The Shakers or The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming was a small religious community that lived by strict moral codes and distanced themselves from mainstream culture by living in small self-sufficient communities with little to no ties to society. This ensured that they most depended on land and their hard work for survival.

Shaker’s philosophy promoted three things: simplicity, honesty, and humility. Shakers’ strict moral codes and philosophies were reflected in their craft as well. For instance, faux finishes such as inlays and wood veneers were avoided because they were considered deceitful. Excessive ornamentation was prohibited because it was considered sinful; something they believed promoted pride. The history of Shaker furniture is a history of simple furniture making to meet the most basic needs; a style that will go on to become one of the most desired furniture styles in history.

The History of Mission Furniture

Mission-style furniture came long after Shaker furniture had been in place. Due to the rising demand for arts and crafts, it was around the end 19th century that Mission furniture emerged and took over the scene. Following the design principles of the arts and crafts movement, Joseph McHugh, a New York furniture maker released a line of rustic furniture with simple design elements, inspired by the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in San Francisco. The church’s furnishings shared similarities with those of the Spanish missions across California.

The name was coined when another furniture maker, Gustav Stickley, launched his own version of handcrafted furniture designed with the same principles in mind.

The simple yet elegant and beautiful style of Mission-style furniture is what made the style famous back and then today still, a century later, the same simplicity and elegance is reflected in many modern pieces and cherished across many communities by people of all castes and vocations.

Both shaker and mission styles have different histories, methods of creation that are unique to each style, and both came along centuries apart, however, this does not limit either from sharing enough similarities to make it difficult for common folk to tell them apart. Comparing them requires a keen set of eyes and attention to detail.

Defining Characteristics of Missions and Shaker Style Furniture

Although both Shaker and Mission style furniture can come off as “belonging to the same category”, there are defining stylistic distinctions that make the two styles unique. The main and fundamental difference between the two furniture styles is the wood each one’s primarily made of.

Shakers mostly resorted to locally available American wood like pine, maple, and cherry but primarily, they preferred maple which eventually became one of their defining characteristics.

Mission-style Amish furniture, on the other hand, is largely made of oak, with a preference for long straight lines and flat planes which helped highlight the natural wood grain.

Visible joinery of the Mission style furniture tilts attention to the craftsmanship that goes into the making of the pieces while the simple and minimalist style of the Shaker furniture focuses more on the functionality of the pieces they produce.

Subtle Variations Among Shaker And Mission Furniture

Compared to Mission style, Shaker furniture gives off a more delicate appearance. This, in part, is due to its characteristic tapered legs; most of the Shaker style tables and chairs feature tapered legs. This, however, does not take away from the durability and dependability of Shaker furniture.

Mission style furniture mostly features square legs, this helps provide a heavier, more solid look. The vertical lines and slates of mission style make it look relatively formal, giving it an ornate feel.

Durable construction and subtle design on both sides make them compatible with a wide spectrum of interior décor styles.

What is Shaker style Amish furniture?

Furniture pieces are mostly made with maple, this ensures the pieces produced are lightweight, delicate, and offer a unique delicate look and feel. Here are some of the characteristics, that although now seen as style, had quite practical uses for Shaker people:

Tapering
Tapering is an ancient woodworking style that involves creating thinner furniture legs as they get closer to the floor. Shaker people resorted to tapering to keep the furniture they produced as lightweight and easy-to-move-around as possible.

Turnings
Turnings in shaker furniture help get rid of excessive wood to ensure the pieces are even lighter and more portable, so to speak. Both tapering and turning can be used on a single piece of furniture, in some cases.

Wooden Pulls and Knobs
To maintain the simple, minimalist feel and look of their pieces, rather than metal or glass, Shaker craftsmen exclusively used wood for knobs and handles.

Plain Clean Wood
Veneers, inlay, and other such ornamentation is nowhere to be seen if you’re looking at a Shaker style piece of furniture. This reflects the humble (and rather practical) way of looking at life that Shaker people maintained.

Graduated Drawers
Graduated drawers are another defining characteristic of Shaker style furniture. This achieved two things: firstly, it provided an appealing look but that wasn’t exactly why the Shakers preferred it; graduated drawers are more practical, in that, storing heavier objects at the bottom is more convenient as far as organization is concerned.

What is Mission style Amish furniture?

Mission furniture, although still somewhat plain and simple, offers more of an ornate feel and a formal look. Made primarily from oak, Mission style Amish furniture features long, straight vertical and horizontal lines that help bring out the natural wood grain and makes the style relatively more ornamental than Mission style.

Stains
Featuring darker stains, Mission style furniture tilts more towards the ornamental side compared to Shaker style but this is done quite elegantly and still maintains a decent touch of simplicity and minimalism.

Exposed Joinery
Mostly featuring mortise-and-tenon joints, Mission furniture attempts to achieve the perfect amalgam of style and practicality.

Parallel Slats
Using parallel slats is another common method that Mission furniture makers really make the most of. Creating parallel, harmonious lines can be tedious work but the pattern that this results in, offers a visual of strength while at the same time can make a heavy piece of furniture look lighter.

Leather
Though not terribly standard, you might come across some Mission style pieces featuring leather. The simplicity and subtlety of leather is something that Mission style furniture makers like to use to their advantage every now and then.

Closing Thoughts

Shaker and Mission style Amish furniture have been around and cherished for a long, long time. Both styles have their unique histories, they share similarities but if one knows where to look, there are visible distinctions that make both styles unique and reflect their respective histories and the ideologies they’re meant to exhibit.

Perhaps the most important thing that both styles share is the fact that they’re not easily achievable. Furniture pieces of both styles are handcrafted but extraordinarily skilled Amish furniture makers.

As to which of the two styles is better… is a matter of taste and perspective; some prefer Shaker style whereas some prefer Mission style and there are probably some of us that prefer both. Regardless of the style you may choose to go with, you can expect elegance and dependability.

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