Shaker Craftsmanship Sound and Simple

Shaker Craftsmanship Sound and Simple

LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Building a heaven on earth is something the Shakers took to heart. A refuge from the world, a universe unto themselves was the inspiration behind their communal society.  

“The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair came out of a belief that an angel might come and sit on it.”
— Thomas Merton

From the lines of the roof to the placement of windows and the construction of thick stone foundations and simple four-post chairs--everything was by design.

“We think that man cannot hope to attain a spiritual heaven until he first creates a heaven here on earth,” one brother said.

It’s a mindset that may seem foreign today, but for the Shakers creating a utopian world was a reality. 

From picket fences to door handles, nothing was left to chance. Nothing was created thoughtlessly or with a hurried hand.    

A celibate society, their 4,000-6,000 member culture is all but extinct today, but the spirit with which they lived and died remains palpable. Simplicity and perfection as an aim resulted in a subtle beauty and serene environment in Shaker villages.

“Every building, whatever may be its use, has something of the air of a chapel. The paint is all fresh, the planks are all bright; the windows are all clean…The people are like their village…seeming to be at peace, not only with themselves, but with nature and with heaven,” said a visitor. 

Unlike the Amish, the Shakers were open to technology. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, TV and cars were all acceptable.

Shakers had no role models when their ship landed from England and they formally set up shop in 1787 in New Lebanon, New York. Their farmland wasn’t great and they spent their early years improving the fields and crops.

They also didn’t see themselves as any kind of artists or designers. They simply wanted to build things with the utmost attention, simplicity and care. In their view ornamentation for its own sake was a sinful indulgence.  Everything had to be practical. Their sound, simple construction resulted in side chairs that could lifted with one finger.

Thomas Merton said the “peculiar grace” of a Shaker chair came out of a belief that an angel might come and sit on it.

Do not make what is not useful was their creed. But what they did make was often extraordinary whether it was a basket, a blanket box; or a sewing stand. They disallowed worldly taste resulting in an honesty and integrity of design that remains distinctive today.   

Religion clearly entered into their workplace, no carvings, inlays, accessories, or veneerings in their furniture—nothing to distract the eye from the whole. It was about purity of design and unity. Uncomplicated and elegant.

Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful. That’s Shaker design in a nutshell.   

The Shakers sought simplicity in death too. Their early graveyards featured plain wood or stone markers. They were eventually replaced in a few communities with cast-iron markers, uniform in shape and design. No urns. No angels. No vases of flowers. The name, dates and age at death were enough.   

On June 4, Skinner Auctioneers featured The Shaker collection of Erhart Muller on the block.  Here are some current values.

Shaker Furniture 

Cabinet Photos; 3; Harvard, Mass., Shakers; includes residents and buildings; $250. 

One-drawer Table; Enfield, New Hampshire; 1917; 25 ½ inches high by 22 ¼ inches wide; $42,500.

Sewing Desk; red-stained; circa 1830; 40 ¼ inches high by 30 ¾ inches wide; $55,000.

Candlestand; red-stained; early-19th century; 25 inches high; $70,000. 

Alphabet Board; Harvard, Mass., 19th century; 20 ½ inches high by 159 ½ inches long; $85,000. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller. For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column. Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a motherlode of information about art, antiques and collectibles. Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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