Published  22/05/2008

Gathering into gospel order: the Shaker approach to design

Gathering into gospel order: the Shaker approach to design

A consideration of Shaker-made architecture, furniture and commercial wares - items of remarkable beauty, durability, economy and practicality - inevitably leads to one conclusion: the story of Shaker design is inseparable from the Shakers' identity as a distinct cultural group living by choice apart from 'The World', as they called secular society

Review by Cindi Di Marzo

'Shaker Design: Out of this World', an exhibit of more than 150 examples, including modern works that incorporate, echo and/or dialogue with Shaker design elements, explores the many layers of belief contributing to the Shaker aesthetic. A good number of the examples were loaned to the exhibiting institutions by preserved Shaker collections at or near original Shaker villages, including Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York. A number of them are being publicly exhibited for the first time. For example, one delightful component of the show, a display of products made by the Shakers for sale to the World features collector M Stephen Miller's private collection of seed packaging boxes.

'Shaker Design: Out of this World' premiered at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont (16 June to 28 October 2007), and was organised by the museum's senior curator, Jean Burks, a noted Shaker authority and former curator of the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham. Now on view in Manhattan at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture (13 March to 15 June 2008), the exhibit offers the city's urban dwellers and tourists from around the globe an oasis of clarity and quality.

A major theme of the show is the strong creative, entrepreneurial thread embedded in Shaker history. To survive and thrive as their numbers grew, the Shakers, or United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, embraced many ideas, tools, styles and materials developed in secular society. Yet in most cases, the Shakers adapted or improved them in line with their beliefs and needs. When what they sought was not available, they invented what they needed and, in fact, applied for patents for some of their inventions.1 Among their now iconic inventions are flat brooms, introduced by Theodore Bates of the Watervliet, New York, community in 1798; efficiently functional round barns, first built in 1826 by Massachusetts Shakers; and metal ball-and-socket 'tilters', which prevented wear on the bottoms of rear chair legs when people reclined against them, the design of which was submitted to the US Patent Office in 1852 by Brother George O Donnell. Determined to remain independent of 'The World' as they supplied goods and services to 'The World's People', the Shakers seemed to take pride in their ingenuity. Ever mindful of the use of a product, the Shakers integrated function and form in innovative, economical and practical ways - for example in their meeting houses, designed to accommodate large numbers of people whose worship included complex dance routines.

For many people, the term 'Shaker' is synonymous with a plain and simple aesthetic. The ubiquitous (and copied) Shaker chair and even the red-wool Dorothy Cloak (worn by President Cleveland's wife at his second inauguration) are known to a general public that would be surprised by the wooden puzzle-like yarn winders called swifts, delicate sewing boxes and extensive range of herbal and food products for sale. To more accurately convey the depth, complexity and enduring legacy of Shaker culture, Burks divided the exhibit into five sections: the Shaker World, with classic Shaker furniture constructed between 1820 and 1860; the Commercial World, with items made solely for sale in the marketplace; the Spiritual World, focusing on unique 'gift drawings' and musical manuscripts (composed with Shaker-invented 'letteral notation') created during a spiritual revival, the Era of Manifestations, between 1837 and 1859; the Fancy World, with examples of an antithetical style that had captivated middle-class society in urban areas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and the Contemporary World, with some intriguing twentieth-century Shaker-inspired designs from America (by Paul McCobb, Roy McMakin, Douglas Brooks and William Laberge); Scandinavia (by Danish furniture makers Børge Mogensen and Hans Wegner); the Netherlands (Dutch artist/designer Joep van Lieshout); Japan (by Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima); and Italy (Antonio Citterio's reinvention of the Shaker wood stove).

Immersed as we are in a global, commercially and technologically driven culture, the Shaker's commitment to purity, chastity, simplicity, pacifism and communal living has become compelling to modern men and women. Caught in a swirl of endless to-do lists, electronic devices, advertisements promising relief in the form of acquisition, and the lure of better replacements for items that need repair soon after purchase, many people might secretly yearn for a return to Shaker simplicity. Yet when the Shakers, led by Mother Ann Lee, arrived in America from England with a small group of followers in 1774, they were objects of curiosity and ridicule. Early Shaker activity in America took place amidst a widespread trend of religious revivalism, and the group drew more than its share of persecution. This was partly due to Mother Ann's charismatic personality, which swung between the 'seer' and 'the strict mother'.2

Born in 1736 in Manchester, England, Lee originally joined the Quakers. Forced by her blacksmith father to marry someone in his trade, she eventually experienced eight pregnancies, with four stillbirths and four children dead before the age of six. At some point, she developed an extreme abhorrence to the idea of marriage and promoted celibacy as critical to living a Christ-like life. Since the Quakers married and engaged in sexual relations, Lee left them for a new sect founded by English reformer James Wardley and his wife, Jane. Like the Wardleys, Lee believed that followers would experience shaking and trembling as the holy spirit purified bodies and souls. This extreme behaviour led to frequent persecutions. During a stay in an English jail, Lee saw a vision of Jesus becoming one with her. Her vision of the 'second coming' was notably different from other such recorded visions, with the spirit residing in a woman. After repeated imprisonments, Lee took her followers (including Lee's brother, William; her niece, Nancy; James Whittaker, whom, it appears, she had raised; John Hocknell, who provided the funds for the trip; his son, Richard; and James Shepherd and Mary Partington) to America. In 1776, Hocknell bought land for the community at Niskayuna, New York, in the township of Watervliet near Albany.

In America, Lee's mystical presence drew converts as well as enemies. A missionary trip through New England during the period 1781-1783 wore Lee down. She died at age 48 in September 1784 in Watervliet. While her charismatic personality, alternately motherly and fearsome, was certainly the glue holding her movement together, the credit for the society's effective organisation begins with her hand-picked successor, James Whittaker (1751-1787). Whittaker worked tirelessly to establish 'Gospel Order' in nearly every facet of Shaker life.3 Classic Shaker design was a physical manifestations of zealously pursued ideals: an essential simplicity devoid of superfluous detail, cleanliness as a route to godliness (peg rails were installed on the walls so that chairs could be hung upside down when not in use, preventing dust from accumulating on seats); uniformity evincing equality (Shaker grave markers, for example, are of one design); usefulness; integrity; durability; and efficiency. Whittaker urged his fellow Shakers to reflect 'Truth' as an embodied ideal, saying, 'Be what you seem to be, and seem to be what you really are, and don't carry two faces under one hood'.4

Eventually, the locus of Shaker leadership was held in the community in New Lebanon, New York, where rules ranging from location and colour of buildings to daily routine to the choreography of dancing during worship were codified. (At first, ecstatic movements were free-form but, like all aspects of Shaker life, changed to align with elders' notions of perfect order.) Millennial Laws (formally known as Gospel Statutes and Ordinances) appeared in 1821, revised in 1845 as a comprehensive document regulating behaviour. The western communities developed their own practices based on situational needs, but a determined uniformity to Shaker hierarchy, village planning, building design and manufacture persisted.

Viewing the furniture in the show's first section, visitors will note two striking features beyond the classic, paired-down styling. Shaker understanding of balance, proportion and colour places their designs well above the merely functional. Since all of the earliest Shakers were converts, they had lived and worked outside the community and brought with them knowledge of and preferences for prevailing worldly styles; for example, the graceful lines of the Federal and neoclassical styles popular in the States between 1785 and 1815. Design in America during this period grew out of an architectural style developed in England by the Adams Brothers. Particularly, the use of asymmetry in Federal buildings seems to have influenced Shaker craftsmen. Their 'separate but equal' philosophy regarding the sexes resulted out of necessity in symmetrical elements (two entrances and mirrored accommodations for men and women within a household), but much of their furniture exemplifies harmony between disparate elements.

One outstanding example of such harmony is a washstand made at Enfield, New Hampshire, circa 1830, with its original bright yellow paint, a large single door and a bank of three short drawers that can be opened by walnut knobs. Plain knobs against vivid yellow and a body of pine ground the piece in daily-ness and humility and produces a remarkably low-key but perfect harmony. At first, offbeat colors seem to be the sole extravagance allowed Shaker craftsmen, although a closer look at elders' statements on permissible colors reveals rationales (availability of pigments, for instance) for such choices as chrome yellow, apple green and Prussian blue. In her catalogue essay, Burks says that 'Very few extant pieces of colourful Shaker furniture have undisturbed finishes today. Most of this disruption was certainly intentional on the part of the Shakers themselves, who removed or renewed the finish on their furniture over time so that it would remain neat and clean'. Burks also mentions that later owners altered the appearance of pieces as new styles and movements (Arts and Crafts, Colonial) gained popularity.5

Visitors drawn to the Shakers and their activities, spiritual and otherwise, are advised to purchase the catalogue, as the exhibited items elicit more questions than answers. For instance, unlike other spiritually inspired writing and drawing, the gift drawings displayed on the second floor at Bard Graduate Center were not made by the person who had the vision or dream. Gift drawings were conscious creations of artists transcribing the gift, who incorporated symbols from other spiritual traditions, some reminiscent of Masonic imagery, and from their own imaginations. Placed in context with ongoing rebellions against leadership succession and female rule, the Era of Manifestations is shown to be a strong counter to divisive tendencies, just as Mother Ann gathered her group around her magnetic spiritual persona. Similarly, the pieces in the Fancy World section, which, when compared with Shaker simplicity, could seem pretentious, need amplification. Placed in historical context, 'fancy' items reflect changing philosophies and demonstrate how, after the inevitable 'bust' following an economic boom produced by commerce in 'fancy' ware, 'The World's People', including transcendentalist thinkers, came to a new appreciation of the Shakers.6

Edited by Burks, the full-colour, hardcover volume contains essays on Shaker design and history from many perspectives. In 'Shaker Villages and the Landscape of Gospel Order', Robert P Emlen of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, discusses Shaker architecture and village planning. M. Stephen Miller, who contributed his collection of seed packing boxes to the exhibit, examines a range of Shaker-made products for worldly consumption in 'Designed for Sale: Shaker Commerce with the World'. Burks draws solid connections between belief and design in her essay, 'Faith, Form and Finish: Shaker Furniture in Context'. Dr Jean Humez, a religious scholar and chair of the women's studies department at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, describes contradictions in the apparent gender-based equality espoused by the Shakers in 'The Problem of Female Leadership in Early Shakerism'. Gerard C Wertkin, director emeritus of New York's American Folk Art Museum, spotlights gift drawings and music in ' "Given by Inspiration': Visionary Expressions in Shaker Life and Art (1837 to 1859)'. Sumpter Priddy III, a collector, consultant and material culture specialist, gives a lively account of the fad for 'fancy' in 'Plain Shakers, Fancy World'. And closing the catalogue with 'In the Spirit?: Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Shaker-Inspired Design', Kory Rogers, associate curator at the Shelburne Museum, offers a glimpse of modern approaches to Shaker design.

During more than 200 years of Shaker history in America, there have been crises over leadership, economic hardships, dwindling membership and disbanded communities, but the notion of 'Gospel Order' has prevailed as a survival mechanism. Just before the Civil War, the number of Shakers living in 18 communities from Maine to Kentucky peaked at 6,000 members. Today, three remaining Shakers reside at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. There they continue to welcome visitors to their museum, store and library, and offer exhibits, guided tours and other programs.7 With support from scholars, collectors and numerous admirers, other original Shaker villages have been preserved. Perhaps it is ironic that Lee's uncompromising belief in celibacy, and the unrelenting commercialisation of American society, fated her followers to extinction. But maybe the supreme irony is that the Shaker legacy, created through more than two centuries of living close to Lee's and Whittaker's intentions of Gosepl Order', is stronger than ever.

1. For the most part, Shakers believed in sharing their discoveries with non-believers, who made up lucrative markets for Shaker products. Unfortunately, some manufacturers, applying the worldly practice of copying, forced some communities to apply for patents.
2. See exhibition catalogue essay, 'The Problem of Female Leadership in Early Shakerism' by Jean M. Humez in Burks JM (ed). Shaker Design: Out of this World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007: 94-98.
3. Ibid.: 3. In his catalogue essay, 'Shaker Villages and the Landscape of "Gosepl Order'' Robert P Emlen says that visitors to Shaker communities frequently observed that 'Shaker communities in the middle of the nineteenth century had a distinctive appearance of prosperity, unity of design and orderliness that set them apart from their neighboring farmers and villages. This appearance was a manifestation of the distinctive thought, belief and behavior that governed life in a Shaker community. The believers themselves called this way of life "living in Gospel Order''.
4. Quoted from Flo Morse, 'The Shakers and the World's People'. In: Shaker Design: Out of this World. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1987: 54.
5. Ibid.: 55.
6. At the height of the craze for Fancy in the 1840s, Charles Dickens came to America and visited a Shaker village. At that time, he equated 'plain' with the unimaginative, saying, 'We walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock'. Quoted from The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes, vol 2. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894. In Shaker Design: Out of this World: 166.
7. For information about the Sabbathday Lake community in New Gloucester, Maine, visit their Web site ( from which herbal tea, potpourris, culinary spices and balsam pillows made there by the Shakers can be purchased.

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