Rustic simplicity never goes out of style.
It’s why Amish furniture has remained in demand year after year. The handcrafted originality of each piece turns simple furnishings into functional art reminiscent of a pre-industrial world, when useful objects were designed for beauty as well as practicality.
Amish furniture makers play an important role in preserving history, as many of their pieces are crafted in traditional styles rooted in American folk culture. Two in particular—the Mission and Shaker styles—continue to influence modern home decor.
At first glance, it may be difficult to tell these two styles apart. Both are known for their simple designs and lines. But to the practiced eye, each has distinct characteristics that set them apart. To help you decide which style suits your home best, here’s a primer on how to tell the difference:
Shaker-style Amish furniture originated from a small community of religious radicals who left England for the United States in 1774. They formed self-sufficient communities dedicated to the principles of simplicity, honesty and humility, which were reflected in the furnishings they made. They equated excessive ornamentation with sinful pride, so they crafted simple, unadorned objects without veneers, inlays or other faux finishes.
Hallmarks of the Shaker style include tapered legs, gentle curves and sometimes thin slats or spindles. The lines are slender and elegant, designed to eliminate excess materials and make each piece as light as possible. Rounded knobs made of wood allowed craftsmen to complete an entire piece from one supply source. Although Shakers used a variety of local American woods such as pine, maple and cherry, maple was often their first choice. The minimalist design of Shaker-style Amish furniture reflects a focus on functionality.
Mission-style Amish furniture developed more than a century later during the American Craftsman movement. As goods became increasingly mass produced, many artists protested by returning to more traditional American designs. The term “Mission style” was coined when furniture maker Joseph McHugh developed a line of rustic furniture based on chairs made for the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in San Francisco, which resembled the Spanish missions found throughout California.
Mission-style furniture has a heavier feel than the Shaker style, with sturdy slats, solid legs or posts, straight angles, and simple horizontal and vertical lines. The flat panels accentuate the grain of the Quarter-sawn white oak, the traditional wood of choice for this style. Black hardware, usually in the form of pulls or diamond knobs, gives the furnishings a more formal, ornamental appearance. Mission-style Amish furniture makers often use exposed joinery to call attention to the craftsmanship of the piece.
Despite their differences, the Mission and Shaker styles share an important characteristic: Their simplicity makes them highly compatible with a variety of other styles. With clean, durable lines that won’t overtake a room, they add a natural, handcrafted element to even the most modern décor.