“While plaining at my bench, my whole soul was enshrouded with a mantle of tribulation; but I kept on at my plaining, & soon it appeared to me that my plain began to go with less physical force or exertion on my part than usual. It moved more & more easily until it seemed that I had to hold on to the tool, in order to keep it from moving itself.”
Separating Shaker furniture from Shaker ideals has risks. The resulting design can have awkward details. Or the overall look can get wedged somewhere between contemporary studio furniture and country-style stuff you might find at a shopping mall.
Shaker furniture is not just a lack of ornament. It is a diverse collection of works by more than 250 cabinetmakers in 18 communities spread across a wide swath of early America. Yes, there are rules and ideals that course through all pieces made by the brethren, but there is diversity within as well.
During the last couple weeks I have been poring over “The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture” (Schiffer), a 576-page masterwork by Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks. I’m going to build some reproductions of furniture from the White Water, Ohio, community, and I want to make sure that my head is swimming with images of the furniture of the Shakers as I begin. That’s why I purchased this book, which was published in 2003.
However, beyond the 1,000 images presented in the book, the text is also a delight to read. Rieman is a professional furniture maker and was an interpreter at Hancock Shaker Village. Burks has a long resume of articles, books, lectures and curatorial duties in Shaker circles.
As a result, this book casts an eye on these pieces that belongs to the woodworker and historian, instead of that of a decorator. So there is scholarship here that ties construction and decorative details to the seven Shaker bishoprics. Instead of organizing the book by “chairs” and “desks” and “built-ins,” the authors have organized it by geography. This, I think, is illuminating. You start to see how the pieces in Union Village, Ohio, are vastly different than the ones made in the eastern communities.
Each bishopric is given a chapter that explains the history of the communities and the furniture that was built there. These sections are invaluable for understanding how the Shaker style evolved. For example, Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., had a system in place of training apprentices, who then produced furniture that wasn’t influenced by the outside world as much. And this, according to the book, led to the “classic” period of Shaker design between 1820 and 1850.
The book also has backbone. While most contemporary books shy away from the Shakers’ Victorian-era work, “The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture” refuses to ignore this time period just because it doesn’t fit into what is in vogue these days.
The book is pricey ($125 retail but much less on Amazon), but is worth every penny. My only gripe with the book is its binding. Several copies I’ve encountered are falling apart, which is testament both to the fact that the publisher should use better glue, and that the information within is very readable.
Check it out at your local library. Then save your pennies.
– Christopher Schwarz