Shaker Influence on Scandinavian Design

Using modern sales techniques, such as the mail-order catalog and the showroom, the Shakers began selling their ladder-back chairs to the world in quantity in the mid- 19th century. By the 1870s, the chair business had blossomed, and the factory at Mount Lebanon was busily turning out a line of popular chairs under the direction of Robert Wagan. In 1927 one of these chairs, a #7 armed rocker with a cushion rail (below), found its way to Denmark, where it caught the eye of one of the most important figures in the Scandinavian modern movement, architect Kaare Klint (1888-1954).

Mt. Lebanon Shaker Rocker
This armed rocker, built in Mount Lebanon, New York, around 1880, inspired many Scandinavian modern designers.
Courtesy of the United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, ME

Klint was codirector of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen and chairman of furniture and interior decorating at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. When Klint saw the American ladder-back rocking chair, he was highly impressed. He ordered measured drawings of the chair to be used as teaching aids. He also ordered a replica of the chair. At this point, no one in Denmark knew the chair was Shaker in origin; it was merely considered early American. Some time later, an identical rocker was acquired by the Danish Museum of Decorative Arts, but again, no one identified it as Shaker. Only in 1937, when Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews's influential book Shaker Furniture: The Craftsmanship of an American Communal Sect (Yale University Press, 1937; reprint, Dover Publications, 1964) became available in Denmark, did the Danes learn the origin of the rockers that had inspired them so profoundly.

In the years after World War I, the doctrine of functionalism had taken hold among designers and architects in the United States and Europe. In a nutshell, functionalism echoed the Shaker assertion that utility should dictate design. In 1939 the Danish Cooperative Wholesale Society began a movement to make well-designed, attractive, affordable furniture that could be mass-produced for everyday use. The society set up its own factory, FDB Mobler, and made Borge Mogensen (1914-1972) head of the project. Apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, Mogensen had worked for Klint and was familiar with the architect's fascination with Shaker furniture. Mogensen recognized the functional appeal of the Shaker forms and knew that the stripped-down designs were well suited to the manufacturing process.

Mogensen designed many chairs based on Shaker prototypes. One of his most famous, the J39 (below), was designed in 1947. With a single slat back, the J39 is obviously related to the low ladder backs that the Shakers designed to fit neatly under their dining tables.

Mogensen Chair
Borge Mogensen designed the J39 chair in 1947.
Courtesy of "KVIST" and Design Selections International. Inc.
Poul Madsen, Photo.

To complement his chairs, Mogensen designed a trestle table (below) that was clearly inspired by a Hancock, Massachusetts, table pictured in Shaker Furniture. However, instead of featuring a single leg at each end, as the Shaker table did, Mogensen's table has two thin legs at each end. The legs give the table a lighter appearance and increase the width of the critical joints, resulting in a stronger structure and a striking design. Mogensen further emphasized the lightness of the legs by chamfering all four corners - an echo of the long, tapered chamfers found on the Hancock table. FDB Mobler put Mogensen's chair and trestle-table designs into production and exported them to the United States, where they were enthusiastically received by furniture buyers. For many Americans, FDB Mobler's products introduced Scandinavian modern style.

Mogensen Table
Borge Mogensen's trestle table redefined a Shaker classic.
Courtesy of "KVIST" and Design Selections International. Inc.
Poul Madsen, Photo.

The most notable of the Scandinavian furniture designers is probably Hans Wegner, who also firmly believed that design and function went hand in hand. Wegner summed up his philosophy in a 1979 interview: "There is much confusion today about what is modern, what is functional, and my hope always is that people will not be drawn to novelty but will learn to value what is simple and pure in good design. And things should do the job they are designed for. I don't think that's asking too much."

Wegner made his mark by entering and winning awards in the annual competition sponsored by the Copenhagen Cabinetmakers' Guild. After World War II, he designed a Shaker-inspired rocker for the Danish Cooperative Wholesale Society. Today he is best known for his Peacock chair (1947) and his classic "Chair" (1949). Neither of these famous pieces is overtly Shaker inspired by any stretch, but both represent a continuation of the principles embodied in Wegner's rocker.

Wegner Rocker
Hans Wegner designed this Danish rocker, J16 with a distinct Shaker flavor.
Courtesy of "KVIST" and Design Selections International. Inc.

The Shaker influence also cropped up in the interior design for Thiele, an optical firm in Copenhagen. Klint and Vilhelm Wohlert designed the space in the mid- 1950s: One entire wall was paneled in wood and built with multitudes of small drawers for holding eyeglass frames. Details, furnishings, and workmanship were of the highest caliber. Both Klint and Wohlert were familiar with the dwelling house at the Hancock community, and I think it's safe to say that they were influenced by the massive built-in cupboards they saw there.

Scandinavia began exporting its mass- produced furniture to the United States in quantity in the 1950s. By the 1960s the style had gained enormous popularity, which continued into the next decade. Many Americans, myself included, grew up with the Scandinavian modern style, admiring its clean lines and crisp functionality, completely unaware that at least some of the furniture's roots could be traced to the Shaker communities on our own shores. Those of us who became furniture designers discovered this fact; many of us would explore the Shaker tradition, drawing direct inspiration from its purity and simplicity.

Copyright copyright GIF1998 by Christian Becksvoort

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