Amidst a history of furniture design that exalted form and decoration, from the opulent veneers and dramatic lines of William and Mary, the graceful curves of Queen Anne, the elaborate motifs of Rococo, and the ornate details and bold inlays of Neoclassicism, Shaker style emerged in the early 1800s as starkly minimalist. Characterized by simple, clean lines, utilitarian design and an unwavering dedication to quality, Shaker furniture became wildly popular by the mid 19th century and still influences some of the most celebrated designers of today.
An understanding of Shaker style begins with an understanding of Shaker values. The Shakers (or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) were a religious sect guided by the principles of simplicity, honesty and utility. Also known as the Three Ps – plainness, pride, and practicality – these values were reflected in the furniture they designed. Derisively called Shakers because of their frenzied shaking during religious worship, they arrived in New York from England in 1774 led by Mother Ann Lee. By the mid 19th-century, the Shaker community had more than 6,000 members spread across 19 communities mostly in New York and New England, but as far as west as Kentucky and as south as Florida; today, only one community with a handful of members still exists in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, near New Gloucester, Maine.
In an effort to replicate a ‘heaven-on-Earth’ and isolate themselves from the sinful influences of the outside world, Shakers were largely self-sufficient; they grew their own food, made their own tools, and built their own structures. They believed that making was an act of worship and that the path to salvation lay in hard work. For these reasons, Shaker style is often synonymous with excellent craftsmanship.
Shaker Design Values
Millennial Laws, the governing doctrine by which the sect lived, advocated for ‘plain and simple’ design that was ‘unembellished by any superfluities which add nothing to its goodness or durability.’ In the Shaker community, ornamentation of any kind, such as inlays, carvings or veneers, was condemned as both deceitful and immodest. Furniture, like their values, should therefore be honest in its construction and appearance.
The Shakers created an honest beauty with perfect proportions by way of the Golden Ratio – a height to width or width to height ratio of 1.618 to 1. This was on clear display in their chests of graduated drawers, one of the most recognizable Shaker designs even today. Having larger drawers near the bottom and smaller ones near the top not only served an aesthetic purpose, but also a utilitarian one: larger, heavier items in top drawers could cause the entire piece to topple.
By the 1860s, Shakers had become – and still are – best known for their ladder- or slat-back chairs. (They also invented the flat broom.) Born of utility and economic purposes, the chair used centuries-old design and basic, easy-to-produce components, such as turned legs and a woven seat. Inspired by a common New England form, the first Shaker slat-back chair was probably made in New Lebanon, New York, shortly after 1785, and then refined over the years to be more comfortable and, most important, lighter. The Shaker lifestyle revolved around communal living, and large, impromptu gatherings were common. It was therefore essential that furniture was light enough to pick up and move, or even hang on a peg on the wall (peg rails are another classic Shaker design still used in interiors today).
Despite their unquestionably ascetic lifestyle, the Shakers were extraordinarily progressive. In the mid nineteenth century, when mass-produced was tantamount to shoddy workmanship, the Shakers were brilliant salespeople, marketing their goods with a focus on their attention to detail and high-quality materials (where other furniture makers were using imported woods like mahogany, Shaker craftspeople utilized locally sourced timber such as cherry, maple, and pine). Highly experimental with labor-saving devices, they readily employed the use of mortising machines and steam-powered lathes, and one female Shaker, Tabitha Babbitt, is credited with inventing the first circular saw used in a saw mill in 1813. Even today, a ball-and-socket joint the Shakers invented to allow chairs to tilt back without straining the wood or scratching the floor is widely used.
Identifying Shaker Style
After the Civil War ended in 1865, membership in the Shaker community began to decline as the pull of modern life won out over the sect’s austere customs. Their disappearance, in conjunction with the exceptional quality and long-lasting influence of their work, led to the scholarly study of the Shaker culture and the covetous collection of their designs.
Characteristics of Shaker Furniture:
- Tapered legs were implemented mainly to reduce weight so furniture could be moved or lifted when not in use (for cleaning, celebrating, etc.). The legs are often delicate and straight, perhaps with a slight swelling in the middle, and have simple or no feet at all.
- Another function of utility, turnings reduced mass while keeping each piece’s structural integrity. They were easy to replicate and often used in conjunction with tapering.
- Shaker craftsman used locally sourced timber that was readily available to them according to their region. Cherry, maple, and pine were the most common, but walnut, hickory, and poplar were also used. To protect the wood, it was sometimes stained or painted with colors dictated by the sect – typically blue, red, yellow, or green – in a monochromatic treatment.
- Since materials like metals were considered showy, Shakers used a lathe to make turned wooden pulls, which were usually of the same wood as rest of the piece to avoid attracting attention.
- Shaker furniture is always made with unadorned wood and devoid of inlays, veneers, or other intricacies, which they considered a deception. Pieces are often also finished with rounded or gently beveled edges.
- Shaker concealed joinery elements include ball-and-socket joints, mortise-and-tenon joinery, and dovetails (half-blind dovetails were used on drawers since they’re only visible when the drawer is out). They fortified tenons with pegs of the same wood the furniture was made from to keep it inconspicuous.
- Shaker chests were designed with graduated drawers, the largest near the bottom and the smaller towards the top, both for utilitarian (avoiding a tumble) and aesthetic (adding visual interest) purposes.
- The Shaker community was hinged on communal living and their furniture reflected that tenet with large tables and chests and sewing tables built for two. Though their furniture was large, it was also light, built with a strict focus on portability and storage: tables with drop leaves, legs that unscrew, and furniture that can be hung on pegs.
When it comes to Shaker design, form follows function; its splendor lies in its ingenuity. Deceptively simple, the style was revolutionary; it is said to have influenced such design luminaries as George Nakashima, Hans Wegner, Wharton Esherick, Garrett Hack, C.H. Becksvoort, Charles Eames, Gustav Stickley, and Thomas Moser, to name a few. While it has evolved to include more contemporary elements – porcelain knobs, colorful seat fabrics, varnish to highlight wood grain – the basic principles of restraint, utility, and resourcefulness have unfailingly remained and continue to be the cornerstone of what is perhaps the most popular and enduring design aesthetic in the United States.