A Look at Richard Bissell’s Mission and Shaker Furniture

If you look at Richard Bissell’s body of work, you get the feeling that he appreciates a classic look, with natural, local woods handcrafted into something designed to look beautiful and lasting. It’s an look that contrasts heavily with today’s manufactured, out-of-the-box furniture.

Shaker cabinet

“I like building simple, but well-proportioned and functional pieces from solid, domestic woods using traditional joinery,” Bissell says. He uses no veneers, no exotic woods, and crafts his furniture with traditional joinery, including mortise and tenon, dovetail, and frame and panel. He describes much of his work as falling in the Shaker and Mission styles.

Mission library desk

Both styles hail from similar eras, Shaker design originated in the 18th century and reached its height in the early to mid-19th century. Mission furniture was a part of the Arts and Crafts Movement and began later in the 19th century and flourished well into the 20th century.

Shaker bed

Shaker and Mission furniture bear some similarities in style. Both emphasize simplicity in design, method, and craftsmanship — but for very different reasons.

Mission night table

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, sometimes called The Shaking Quakers or just Shakers, for their ecstatic dancing during worship, were a community of Christians who valued honesty, utility and simplicity. This was reflected in their craftsmanship. The furniture was handmade and functional, and bore no extraneous adornment such as veneers, inlays, carving or metal drawer pulls. Shakers believed that avoiding ornamentation helped them avoid the sins of pride and deceit. They also used only local woods.

Shaker trestle table

Mission furniture derived from the larger Arts and Crafts movement, which was a rejection of unnecessary excess and increasing industrialization. For furniture, industrialization meant more machine-manufactured goods and a separation of the designer from the craft, the result being furniture of poor construction and needlessly complex design. Mission furniture used only the simplest tools and strongly rectilinear designs.

Mission bed

As similar as they are, there are important differences. Bissell explains: “The major differences between the two styles is that Mission furniture uses more rectangular pieces rather than turned or tapered.” To him, traditional Mission furniture may sometimes appear more crude and heavier in appearance, which he balances with his skills as a craftsman to give pieces a more refined and lighter appearance while staying true to the Mission style.

Shaker writing desk

Perhaps Bissell is picking up on the true spirit of the Shaker craftsman. Mission furniture makers purposely avoided complexity in their furniture to set it apart from machine built pieces. The Shakers did the opposite in some ways. They had to find clever ways to add beautiful visual appeal while staying true to their tenets of furniture-making. They turned works of function and simplicity into works of art, exactly as Bissell himself does. It is telling that Bissell didn’t set out to make Shaker furniture, but rather that his design sensibilities so closely matched the Shakers that his pieces take on that form regardless.

Mission side chair

Many of the principles of the Shakers and the Mission furniture makers persist to this day. Our feelings about local business and resources, environmentalism, and community are not all that different from what the craftsmen from the past were striving to achieve. These traditions are alive and well at Richard Bissell Fine Woodworking.

All furniture images are from Richard Bissell

Sources:

  1. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shak/hd_shak.htm
  2. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acam/hd_acam.htm

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