Who are the Shakers?

Shaker Design, by Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks

Shaker Cupboard and Drawers (circa 1830)
Built-in Cupboard and Case of Drawers (circa 1830)
Church Family Dwelling House (4th floor), Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts.

Shaker Design

by Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks

Editor’s Note: There are four parts to this resource, with links at the top and bottom of each part:

1. Introduction and Discussion of Balance (this part)
2. Discussion of Hierarchy and Pattern
3. Discussion of Proportion and Scale
4. Discussion of Surface and Color

In the process of making a piece of furniture, the cabinetmaker or craftsman draws from experience and observation to create a structural, technical, and decorative solution to the problem of design needs. He develops an appropriate approach based on a range of alternatives in his particular cultural and physical environment. These are drawn from his own expectations and abilities, as well as his goal to satisfy the needs of the client. For the Shakers, the client was the community as a whole. While design is often thought of as a creative endeavor, the process is also grounded in reality and involves the craftsman’s training, which often has a traditional and conservative bias; the influence of a printed design; the development of new forms from the reorganization of older parts; and the adoption of new materials, tools, and techniques. There are a number of factors, both conscious and unconscious, that affect design. Tradition, function, and specific directives all dictate the way a craftsman might choose to use the design concepts.

Furniture can be appraised in a systematic way by evaluating the form and the nonstructural elements of the object and then observing the effect of the spatial surroundings on each piece. The following principles will be invoked to clarify the concept of Shaker design and identify the diverse elements essential to the evaluation and discussion of Shaker furniture. Although form, construction, and function are inevitably interdependent in a design, it is possible to separate and study the principles under which they operate. By using these concepts, one can identify those artistic elements that characterize Shaker furniture and make it discernible from worldly counterparts as well as recognize forms unique to individual Shaker communities.

An analysis of form draws on the concepts of balance, hierarchy, pattern, proportion, and scale, all of which contribute to the shape of the object. The Shakers were consciously aware of these guiding principles which one Believer verbalized when describing the Great Stone Dwelling at Enfield, New Hampshire. “He supervised the construction of their most splendid edifice—which I have described with an architectural taste which has introduced to the interior a combination of space, beauty, symmetry and the light and splendor of a summer’s day”.

Balance entails a state of equilibrium between opposing forces. Symmetry, the distribution of equivalent forms and spaces on either side of a vertical or horizontal axis, is the most commonly used way to achieve balance. Bilateral symmetry, in which the parts on either side of the axis are mirror images of each other, is central to most eighteenth and nineteenth-century worldly furniture. For example, in a chest of drawers, a sideboard, or a cupboard, the case is divided visually by a vertical axis or center line in which each half mirrors the other. Although some Shaker furniture follows this common pattern, other Shaker cabinetmakers regularly moved away from this rigidly held aesthetic and developed many asymmetrical forms, which can achieve balance by presenting equivalent but nonmatching forms. Presumably, an important motive was to build a functional as well as aesthetically pleasing piece. Unbridled by worldly fashion, customer whim, or the traditionally conservative apprenticeship system, Shaker craftsmen were able to create furniture to suit the community’s specific needs, which often involved developing new combinations and layouts.

An example of Shaker symmetry - Counter, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830
Fig 1. An example of symmetry: Counter, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830

An example of Shaker symmetry - Counter by Seth Blanchard, Harvard, Massachusetts,1853
Fig 2. An example of symmetry: Counter by Seth Blanchard
Harvard, Massachusetts, 1853

Counters and sewing desks exemplify the most prominent of asymmetrical arrangements seen in Shaker work furniture. Often built as long horizontal cases, the counters present a highly organized though asymmetrical layout with different shapes placed on either side of the center of the piece. In a counter built by Grove Wright, for example (see fig. 4), a single cupboard door is positioned opposite a much wider bank of drawers. The opposing sections are balanced successfully despite the different horizontal dimensions given to each half. The arrangements of unequal parts are organized around an imaginary visual center line rather than a rigidly placed, geometrically accurate center line.

An example of symmetry - Cupboard and case of drawers, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830
Fig 3. An example of symmetry: Cupboard and case of drawers
Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830

An example of asymmetry - Counter, attributed to Grove Wright, Hancock, Massachusetts, c. 1830
Fig 4. An example of asymmetry: Counter, attributed to Grove Wright
Hancock, Massachusetts, c. 1830

The sewing desk, in particular, regularly displays an asymmetrical layout. In Benjamin Smith’s desks (see pl. 183), the asymmetrically arranged lower storage unit contains three drawers 15 inches long next to four drawers measuring 7 1/2 inches wide. Sometimes one end of a case piece is fitted with a bank of drawers made very accessible by their unusual placement (fig. 5). Tables or counters with overhanging tops will often contain a single underhung drawer (fig. 6). Asymmetry was so well developed in numerous Shaker forms that it has come to be identified with Shaker design.

Sewing Desks, Benjamin Smith (1829-1899), Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1861
Plate 183. Examples of asymmetry – Sewing Desks, Benjamin Smith (1829-1899), Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1861

An example of Asymmetry: Sewing desk, Enfield, New Hampshire, c. 1860
Fig 5. An example of Asymmetry: Sewing desk, Enfield, New Hampshire, c. 1860

An example of asymmetry: Counter with underhung drawer, Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830
Fig 6. An example of asymmetry: Counter with underhung drawer
Mount Lebanon, New York, c. 1830

Click here to continue with a discussion of hierarchy and pattern.