Quick History: Shaker Design

updated Jun 5, 2019
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Ideally, our furniture can reveal something about how we live and what we value. But in reality, other factors like cost, space and what is available in the marketplace ends up limiting us or diverting us from our true values. We might believe that form should follow function, but own an uncomfortably lumpy hand-me-down desk chair. Or we might fantasize about a huge snuggly sofa, but only be able to haul a spindly loveseat up the stairs. So it’s inspirational to look at the Shakers, a religious sect who designed their homes and furnishings to be strictly in line with their values and ideas, and in the process, helped shape modern style in general.

The Shakers were a religious sect founded in the 18th century. They believed that the Second Coming of Christ was nigh, and that people should create a utopian reality on earth to prepare. Shakers lived communally and ascetically, and with almost revolutionary equality between the sexes — though they were also sexually segregated. They were entirely celibate and outlawed marriage. Hard work was the only worthy pastime. Their worship services involved ecstatic singing, dancing. speaking in tongues, and, of course, the frenzied shaking that gave the sect their name.

One of the principal tenets of the Shaker faith was the idea of freedom from desire. Obviously sexual desire was off the table, but so was acquisitive, materialistic desire, rendered irrelevant by the communal way of life, and by the Shaker emphasis on asceticism, cleanliness, simplicity and function. At the same time, the Shakers strove for perfection in their work, so that they might help create the perfect world that would herald God’s return.

The material culture of the Shakers, then, was completely aligned with these values. They made all their own furniture and furnishings, from brooms and baskets to beds and benches. Their dwellings were communal, and built with the hope that their communities might expand, so they were spacious and airy. Furniture was simple, with forms like ladder-back chairs based on rural vernacular furniture from the 18th century. Shaker craftsmen made their furniture out of lightweight woods like pine, so furniture could be easily picked up and moved around. In many Shaker dwellings, a peg rail ran around the room at shoulder level, offering places to hang chairs, bonnets or baskets, an ingenious way of keeping the floors clean and the place tidy. Orderly built-in cabinets and drawers also pushed storage as far back to the walls as possible.

But despite this philosophy of tidiness and asceticism, Shaker furniture is not without the occasional decorative flourish. Even the simplest chairs have elegantly turned legs or shapely slats and acorn or flame finials. The Shakers were also brilliant innovators, and one of their lasting inventions was the ball-and-socket tilting foot for chairs, a version of which is still in use today.

Shaker interest in efficiency made them open to technological advances in farming implements, in kitchen tools and in furniture production. Shaker craftsmen had to adopt and innovate efficient production methods in order to meet the demands of their communities. The resulting speed of their production, as well as the pride they took in their careful work, made their products popular with non-Shakers, as well, creating an income stream for the Shaker colonies. By the end of the 19th century, especially with the influence of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, the simple vernacular aesthetic of Shaker furniture was a compelling and authentic alternative to the ornate excesses of the post-Industrial world.

The early 20th century saw the rise of Modernism, whose form-follows-function simplicity echoed Shaker values. Several Modernist furniture makers found direct inspiration in Shaker examples, including icons like George Nakashima and Hans Wegner, who offer a visual and intellectual bridge between Shaker, Scandinavian and Japanese vernacular design.

For those of us who aren’t hewing our own trestle tables, we can find inspiration in the simple comfort of Shaker dwellings and in the beauty that can be found in order and neatness. And for those of us (guilty!) whose tastes and proclivities don’t run to the simple and orderly, we can at least find inspiration in the Shaker dedication to a set of values and ideals, and aim someday to have our own homes offer us a similar harmony.

Sources: The National Park Service has lots more detailed information on the Shakers and their style. You can still visit historically preserved and active Shaker communities.
Images: 1 Wikipedia; 2 Art Complex Museum; 3-5 Canterbury Shaker Village.