by Christian Becksvoort

Excerpt from Chapter 1, THE SHAKER CONTRIBUTION - An Enduring Legacy

Originally published in: The Shaker Legacy by Christian Becksvoort. Publisher The Taunton Press, Inc., Newtown CT. 1998.

Sister R. Mildred Barker
"I would like to be remembered as one who had pledged myself to the service of God and had fulfilled that pledge as perfectly as I can - not as a piece of furniture."

Furniture Design - An Expression of Faith

The individual's personal experience of God was what mattered to the Shakers, not dogma or written theory. Shakerism, over the course of 200 years, has proven to be a dynamic, changing religion, while the basic beliefs remained intact. Their catechism perhaps can best be read in the artifacts they have left us. Each piece of furniture provides a chapter of the Believers' philosophy a three-dimensional expression of faith.

Whether it's a case or a desk, a chair or a table, the furniture is free of unnecessary ornamentation The finish may consist of paint or a faint wash of color; often, the finish only serves to highlight subtly the natural wood grain. The design is always forthright: Cupboards are rectangular, beds are horizontal, chairs are as simple as their function will allow. Features that served no purpose or wasted wood, such as tall bedposts, are nonexistent. There may be some small wooden knobs, a narrow bullnose molding, or a bit of beading, but these additions only serve to highlight the extreme simplicity of each piece.

The Shakers scorned ornament as ostentatious and vain. "The beautiful, as you call it, is absurd and abnormal," said Elder Frederick Evans of the Mount Lebanon community. "It has no business with us. The divine man has no right to waste money upon what you call beauty in his house or his daily life, while there are people living in misery." Yet, despite all of the Shaker condemnations of beauty for beauty's sake, their furniture is beautiful, because it expresses the harmony and order that the Shakers sought in every aspect of their lives.

For the Shakers, good design rested solely upon utility (see "Words to Design By"). "That which in itself has the highest use, possesses the greatest beauty"- this Shaker adage sums up their craftsmen's attitude nearly a century before Chicago architect Louis Sullivan voiced the same concept in the well- known edict, "Form follows function." Long before the Bauhaus school or Frank Lloyd Wright formulated their doctrines of functionalism, the Shakers understood that there was no need to dress up a table with carved feet or inlay. To do its job, the table only needed legs and a top, intelligently designed and sturdily constructed. The Shakers pulled away centuries of superfluities to expose the essential forms of furniture. Most designers and furniture historians agree that the Shaker style was the predecessor of the modern furniture movement.

Yet it's clear that the Shakers possessed a sophisticated aesthetic sense. They took early American furniture forms and refined them. In the hands of the Shaker craftsmen, a peg-leg stand evolved into a sinuously curved round stand, without a trace of extraneous decoration. Sometimes the Shakers did use subtle embellishments. Beading, for example, was not strictly necessary for function or construction strength, but, used sparingly, it provided a certain measure of visual grace--softening the edge of a cupboard door, for example.

Though nonmaterialistic, the Shakers were acutely sensitive to their physical environment. For them, grace and harmony were necessary in God's divine plan and in the objects they created. Although this intertwining of spirituality and design was fairly rare among furniture makers, the Shakers were not alone. Halfway around the world, in a completely different culture, Japanese craftsmen were creating works that the Believers would have appreciated instantly.

Copyright copyright GIF1998 by Christian Becksvoort

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