The Shaker Influence

Friday 6 July 2018

It is a fair assumption that owing to their philosophy of celibacy the Shakers were never going to endure, but their furniture designs have certainly influenced style for the past 90 years or so. Today the belief of the sect in well-made simplicity for the sake of function alone is reproduced more or less faithfully give or take the odd decorative architrave and pediment, in kitchens all over the UK and the USA.

The Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing-they were dubbed Shakers because they were said to shake with fervour-was founded by Manchester woman Ann Lee who with eight followers sailed to the New World in 1774 to escape religious persecution and went on to achieve a social order based on equality, sharing and personal anonymity. By the time of the American Civil War getting on for 6,000 people were living in 18 communities.

The Shaker philosophy of simple, celibate and communal living was strictly observed by families which established a pattern of work and devotion, and the advocacy of Mother Ann of hands to work and hearts to God was followed by each member, even the small children being kept fully occupied except at times of workshop.

Fashioned for function

The sect believed that every object in the home should have a function and that decoration was unnecessary, their favourite sayings being, Whatever is fashioned, let it be plain and simple and for the good and Beauty rests on utility. Fundamental to their creed was that each item had to be made perfectly. This led to a high level of craftsmanship, the over-riding characteristics of which were unity and simplicity. Ornamentation of any sort was considered vain and useless ostentation.

However the Civil War saw their land and buildings torn apart and the industrial age that followed brought mass production with which the communities could not compete and today the few Shakers that are left function only as custodians of the movement.

Before their demise, however, they were using mail order catalogues and even had a showroom from which to sell their ladder-back chairs to the world during the mid-19th century.

By the 1870s the factory at their community at Mount Lebanon was kept busy fulfilling orders and in 1927 a No. 7 armed rocker with a cushion rail found its way to Denmark where it took the fancy of Danish Modernist architect Kaare Klint who ordered measured drawings of the chair so that they could be used as teaching aids.

This was in line with the doctrine of functionalism that took hold of designers after World War I and by the outbreak of World War II the Danish Cooperative Wholesale Society had begun a movement to make well-designed, attractive, affordable furniture that could be built in factories for everyday use, very much in the spirit of the later Shakers.

Statement pieces

The society set up its own factory, FDB Mobler, and made Borge Mogensen head of the project. Apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, Mogensen had worked for Klint and recognised the appeal of the Shaker style.

Meanwhile in the UK designers like Charles Rennie Mackintosh were adopting and adapting the simple style to make statement pieces.

In his book The Shaker Legacy, Christian Becksvoort reports that the wheel had gone full circle by the 1950s when Scandinavia began exporting its mass-produced furniture to the United States.

He says, 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 furnitures 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.

Apart from makers on both continents making fine replicas of Shaker furniture in the traditional way there are countless more producing the style commercially, and in volume, so it is something of an anomaly that I find this particular reproduction quite acceptable. Other styles that attract mass appreciation and as a consequence mass production can come across as faint imitations lacking in style and substance, and I am convinced the answer to this owes much to the paired down aesthetic of the Shaker style being ideally suited to mass production long before it was ever conceived.

Ahead of its time

We talk about certain styles of furniture being ahead of their time and generally this refers largely to appearance, but when used to head up a discussion about Shaker furniture this implies so much more.

I have a tendency to come over all philosophical when researching articles like this as my appreciation of the pieces becomes mixed with a feeling of sadness for those craftsmen of a bygone age who never witnessed the true extent of their travails. It is uplifting though to know that their efforts are still being recognised as a contemporary solution to the dilemma of producing good-quality traditional furniture with an eye on affordability.

I did not have to wander too far from the office for an example of modern Shaker style in full production. Woodworks of Lewes design and build bespoke furniture and are also very well equipped for repetitive work. A typical setup you might say.

Traditional methods of construction are a predominant feature of their cabinet work. Rebate and housing joints are in use along with the various mortice and tenon joints, albeit cut by a machine, but the process has some parallels with those of the past.

Helping to make this connection with the past are a number of older machines refurbished and brought up to current specification and in daily use. A Wadkin straight-line edger with its caterpillar track and auto feed from the 1950s is more impressive than the Altendorf for very different reasons. Likewise a Bursgreen planer thicknesser and Cooksley morticer from the same era are crunching their way through solid timber the way they have for the last 60-odd years.

Engineered boards are used here but there is an aversion to MDF for anything other than templates.

Soft-core Shaker

Of course in the strictest sense this is not hard core Shaker even though their craftsmen embraced modern machinery as it became available and I would like to think that given time they would have had no problem coming to terms with new materials, providing that is that they sat comfortably with their philosophy that the beauty of an object could be measured by its ability to function.

It could in fact be argued that machinery has improved Shaker design. Machine-cut dovetails, though not the prettiest of joints, amount to a significant structural improvement with the commercial benefits of producing virtually the same product in a fraction of the time.

The early 25-pin Brookman dovetailer made in the 60s was discontinued by the mid 1970s and replaced by a smaller version with 15 pins. It is a fully automated machine cutting pins and tails in succession in what appears to be mechanical sleight of hand.

I have heard people suggest that Shaker style lacks imagination and also that it is the purest form of utility furniture and I wholeheartedly agree with the latter but not the former of these statements. If we accept utility as being the ability of a commodity to satisfy human wants and needs then the Shakers were very much pioneers of this concept.

Market forces

Less documented but crucial to understanding the Shaker way is their awareness and acceptance of external market forces. Although never intended for their own personal use they occasionally produced goods for sale that were decorated, the justification being that they were produced with the sole intention of generating revenue. This is especially evident on some of their promotional printed material and ceramics. Hypocrisy or a good nose for business?

For this enduring style there can be no final analysis in a way that other styles and their legacies are calculable by their finite existence. Diluted and from the past it may be but it is still very much among us the moment we decide to do something hands-on in the workshop.