Shaker concepts continue to influence modern designers
Shaker influenced Wooden furniture and bowls were utilitarian items made by the Shakers, and their designs inspired modern creations by “Furnishing Utopia.”
Photos by Charlie Schuck
“If it is both useful and necessary and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautifully as you can.” —Shaker saying
The design of their furniture is rooted in a deep devotion to creating something simply and perfectly. It reflects the way of life for those who belonged to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers, who split from the Quakers in Manchester, England, and whose members fled to America in 1744. Their idea of utopia was based on a belief in pacifism, equality, celibacy, and work as a form of worship. Two members are still living, in Maine, yet the Shakers’ dedication to making things with a purpose continues to influence designers all over the world.
A revival of the Shaker style in the post-war 1940s grew out of a period when minimalists transformed design. One was Japanese-American woodworker George Nakashima, who incorporated Japanese joiner and Shaker minimalist designs in his New Hope, Pennsylvania, workshop. Mira Nakashima, 76, studied under her father for many years before his death in 1990 and continues his legacy.
“Shaker design is very beautiful because of its honesty and simplicity,” says Nakashimi. Her furniture designs are crafted from sustainably harvested hardwoods, continuing in her father’s legacy of respecting natural materials with a lack of ego in its creation.
“When the Shakers sat down to build a chair, they were doing that as an act of worship,” explains New York-based antiques dealer John Keith Russell, whose fascination with Shaker design dates back to 1979. “Most of the artisans always chose a route of humility, and their work was anonymous. It was a communist society where everyone owned everything. They would not embellish objects for the sake of visual value. Heaven was orderly and clean and had no designs that didn’t create use in them.”
Russell, a former board member of Hancock Shaker Village and chair of the museum’s collections committee, travels the world to share the beauty of Shaker design. Next stop: Design Miami. Alongside the Art Basel fairs in Miami each December and Basel, Switzerland, each June, Design Miami has become the premier venue for the most influential collectors, gallerists, designers, curators, and critics. For a second year, Russell will have a booth of Shaker furniture.
The Shaker design has drawn a lot of interest from collectors, says Jennifer Roberts, CEO of Design Miami. “I don’t know how it could ever fall out of favor. I think the aesthetic is appealing to many collectors, but so is the history of the Shakers and the fact that each piece is unique and crafted by hand.”
Hancock Shaker Village director Jennifer Trainer Thompson will lead a group from the Berkshires to Design Miami and will visit Russell’s booth, giving them an opportunity to see first-hand how widespread the Shaker influence is. “The Shakers had such a dedication to making something perfectly and simply, I think that resonates today,” says Thompson. “It is almost like a meditation.”
Hancock Shaker Village’s weaving, blacksmith, oval box and timber frame workshops are regularly sold out. And back in May 2016, Portland-based Studio Gorm worked with a dozen other design studios in a project called “Furnishing Utopia.” They visited Hancock Shaker Village and Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum for a week-long workshop, handling Shaker artifacts and exploring the community’s philosophies and inner workings to interpret an object or Shaker idea in a contemporary context. They created 55 pieces.
“We were interested in understanding why the Shakers’ material culture was so unique for their time and why they continue to be relevant today,” says Studio Gorm co-founder John Arndt. “Simple everyday objects should be made exceptionally well, function without much fuss, and bring a sense of joy to people’s lives in using them.”
With the support of retailers Design Within Reach and Sight Unseen, Furnishing Utopia has presented their results during NYCxDesign for the last three years. The touring exhibit has also been presented in Stockholm and Chicago to much acclaim.
“For every designer, there’s an inherent desire that they hope their design will last,” says Jean Lee, co-founder of Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, part of the Furnishing Utopia collective. “Looking at the Shaker culture is an opportunity for everyone to try to find that universal truth of how to create something beautiful, useful and long lasting.”