Parallels with Japanese Design

There was no direct influence of Japanese culture upon the Shakers, or vice versa. At best, the Shakers had only a passing knowledge of Japan, and the Japanese were for a long time unaware of the Shakers' existence. However, when the furniture and crafts of both cultures are placed side by side, you see surprising similarities: They emphasize functionality and the simple beauty of wood, with little extraneous decoration. Somehow, two very different groups of people struck upon many of the same design principles.

Compare the three round boxes from Okinawa (below) to the Shaker oval boxes. Both sets of boxes are light, wooden, nonangular, and lidded. Both sets feature highly innovative, if culturally different, methods of fastening the sides together. The Shaker boxes use swallowtail lappers, held in place with tiny copper tacks and clinched over on the inside. The Okinawa boxes, built during the Meiji era (1868-1912), are stitched together with bamboo strips. In both cases, the delicate construction results in a visual lightness that belies the boxes' practical uses.

Japanese Boxes
Dating from the Meiji era (1868 - 1912), these boxes from Okinawa are made of cedar (sugi) with a lacquer finish. The largest is 6 7/8 in. high and 14 3/8 in. in diameter. Note the bamboo stitching.
Courtesy of the Essex Museum.
Mark Sexton, Photo.

The tansu shown below, also built during the Meiji era, has the hardware and joinery typical of Japanese furnishings. This particular piece is a choba-dansu. Made of Japanese chestnut (kuri) and Paulownia (kiri), the piece is relatively small and lightweight--it's easily moved, an important practical consideration. As with many Shaker pieces, the tansu's corner joinery is visible, consisting of seven pinned finger joints. An asymmetrical combination of drawers and doors allows many possible uses. Shaker cases often featured graduated drawers and asymmetrical combinations of door and drawers, which added visual interest while providing versa tile storage space.

Japanese Tansu
Built for an office or shop, this tansu is quite small (37 in. h x 35 in. w x 15 1/2 in d).
Courtesy of Mohr & McPherson,
Portland, Maine.

How could two vastly different cultures produce such similar pieces of woodworking? Ty and Kiyoko Heineken compare Japanese and Shaker design in their 1981 book Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry (Weatherhill, 1981). They conclude that "for both the Japanese craftsman and the Shakers, form was primarily determined by function." In other words, the cultures shared a design philosophy.

In both Japanese and Shaker culture, the stress upon mindful labor resulted in a high regard for craftsmanship. The Shakers' spiritual leader, Mother Ann Lee, said, "Do your work as if you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow." The Shaker craftsmen fulfilled her admonition with meticulously built furniture that would last long after most of their communities had closed. Since the earliest times, the Japanese respected the shokunin, or artisan, and his work.

The link between Shaker and Japanese style is best exemplified by the work of an American, George Nakashima (1905-1990). Born in Seattle of Japanese parents, Nakashima was trained as an architect and began woodworking full time in the mid -1940s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima himself described his work as 'Japanese Shaker." At first glance, it's hard to see the Shaker influences.

Nakashima was very much his own designer, whose work was characterized by slabs of free-edged wood, which you'd never see in a Shaker piece - or, for that matter, in a Japanese piece. But upon closer inspection, you can see that Nakashima's approach owed much to the Shaker legacy: in the frank display of joinery and in the celebration of the wood grain, which echoes the Shaker use of tiger-striped and bird's-eye figure. The Shakers were among the first furniture makers to create pieces with contrasting woods and natural finishes. Like them, Nakashima preferred let to the wood speak for itself. His coffee table (below) is a western form with Japanese-flavored angles, but if you keep looking, you can see that this thoroughly modern piece is a variation on the simple trestle tables Shakers used for dining.

Nakashima coffee table
George Nakashima built this teak and cypress coffee table (17 1/2 in. x 37 1/4 in. d) in 1944
Courtesy of George Nakashima, Woodworks.
George Erml, Photo

Nakashima's casework shows off his joint influences even more strongly. Designed for a show in Tokyo, the Odakyu cabinet (below) has obvious Japanese roots: The sliding doors are typical of tansu construction, and the intricate star pattern was manufactured in Japan to the designer's specifications. Now, look closer: The functional simplicity of the overall design, the exposed dovetailed corners, and the use of solid wood clearly show Nakashima's Shaker influences.

Nakashima odakyu cabinet
This Odakyu cabinet of of black walnut and Port Orford cedar (25 3/4 in. h x 57 7/8 in. w x 18 in. d) was designed by George Nakashima in 1976 and built in 1987.
Courtesy of George Nakashima, Woodworks.
George Erml, Photo

Although it's instructive to put Japanese and Shaker pieces side by side and compare their similarities, in the case of Scandinavian modern furniture, the connection is much more than coincidental. Like Nakashima in the United States, Danish designers frankly admitted that the Shakers had helped to inspire their innovative work.

Copyright copyright GIF1998 by Christian Becksvoort

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