A hundred years before architect Adolf Loos published the Modernist manifesto, Ornament and Crime, a similar guiding set of principles – honesty, utility and simplicity – was inspiring a religious sect to develop a design aesthetic that became its livelihood. The Shakers’ inherent modesty called for a rejection of unnecessary decoration and resulted in a minimalist and austere sense of beauty that’s often misunderstood today, when the term “Shaker” is more likely to be used to describe door panels on big-box store cabinetry. But a series of recent exhibitions is aiming to enlighten the world about the influence of this small, influential and all-but-extinct group, and a design ethos that feels even more relevant today.
“There’s something about stripping down something to its central shape and its essential elements that is always going to be appealing to people,” says Lesley Herzberg, the curator at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “For them, work is a form of worship, so anything they made was a way to worship God. It really did need to be made to the best of your ability.”
The Shakers were founded in Manchester, England by Ann Lee (known as Mother Ann), a former Quaker who had a vision of being reborn as a child of God. In 1774, Mother Ann and eight followers arrived in America and settled in Watervliet, New York where they established the first Shaker community. By the mid-1800s, when woodworking proved to be a prosperous business, over two-dozen Shaker communities with a combined population of 6,000 existed down the East Coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida.
The group’s pacifism made them exempt from military service during the American Civil War and record numbers joined the group during that period. “They were really proud of how progressive they were,” says John Baker, the co-owner of the Toronto design shop Mjölk. “They didn’t recognize slavery and they didn’t recognize race or discrimination between men and women.”
Although Shakers embraced modern technology, the boom in industrial manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century proved to be too stiff competition for their meticulous approach, and the Shaker population began to decline. Today, only a few living Shakers remain, but several settlements have been preserved as places of pilgrimage for designers.
In the 20th century, Shaker objects including furniture, boxes, textiles and tools became a source of great inspiration for modern design luminaries. In 1937, Freda Diamond developed a Shaker-inspired collection for Herman Miller. George Nakashima, who often referred to himself as a “Japanese Shaker,” referenced their slat or “ladder” chair backs. And Hans Wegner integrated Shaker austerity into an aesthetic that we now associate with Danish design.
The current revival can be traced back to 2015, when the exhibition Masterpieces of Shaker Design (1820 to 1890) was on display at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Netherlands along with an accompanying publication, Shaker: Function, Purity, Perfection, produced by Assouline in collaboration with the Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon, in New Lebanon, New York.
Last year, John and Wonhee Arndt of Studio Gorm debuted the collaborative project, Furnishing Utopia, at New York Design Week (it recently travelled to the 2017 Stockholm Furniture & Lighting Fair). Prompted by their own visit to a historic Shaker site, it’s an ongoing investigation into the design-savvy sect’s craft principles. “There is an honesty to the way Shakers created their work,” says John Arndt, one half of the Eugene, Oregon-based couple.
In partnership with the Hancock Shaker Village and the Shaker Museum, a group of international designers – Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, Darin Montgomery, Norm Architects, Jonah Takagi, Studio Tolvanen, Christopher Specce, Gabriel Tan, Zöe Mowat, Tom Bonamici and Hallgeir Homstvedt – attended a week-long workshop before being invited to produce new work that embodies the aesthetic.
“We were so impressed with their use of colour,” says Wonhee Arndt. “Most of the interactions [with the Shaker aesthetic] that we had before visiting Hancock was through books, where most of the furniture is shown in dark colours or natural wood, but we found Shakers used so many vibrant colours like yellow, blue, green, red and even pink.” Those hues are beautifully realized in Montreal-based Mowat’s brushes, made with white oak and natural horsehair. Colour also popped up in Ladies & Gentlemen Studio’s take on the classic Shaker work desk, complete with compartments and wheels that were common in large-scale furniture. Studio Gorm opted for natural maple for its iteration of a rocking chair with a spindle back. Last summer, Furnishing Utopia held a second workshop and added three additional design studios for an upcoming collection that will be shown during New York Design Week in May.
A Shaker design revival is taking hold in Canada, too. In January, Mjölk hosted the group exhibition, That is Best Which Works Best, as part of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival. The show mixed contemporary pieces with two-dozen original items from the Hancock village. Winnipeg-based Thom Fougere interpreted the show’s theme as an elegant fire tool set. Oslo-based Hallgeir Homstvedt produced a hanging rail and mirror, his take on the ubiquitous peg rail that borders most Shaker rooms. Baker’s contribution was a multi-use Shaker drawer table created with Jason Collett.
Since the group is often confused with the likes of Quakers, the Amish and Mennonites, the Mjölk installation was a history lesson for many visitors. “I was surprised how many people didn’t know of the Shakers,” says Baker. “They made a huge impact on our everyday life; they invented so many things such as the apple parer, and were inventive in how they utilized space and function.”
Even though knowledge of Shakers is hit or miss among design consumers, Herzberg notes that members of the group itself seemed aware of the impact of their work. To illustrate that point, she references a quote from an elderly Shaker woman in the 1984 Ken Burns’ documentary, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, in which she says that she fully expects to be remembered as a chair after her death. “They recognized even then that their legacy in this world wasn’t necessarily their religion and their tradition,” she says. “It was their material culture that has been widely disseminated and celebrated.”
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