Chris Schwarz's Blog

'The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture'

“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.”

– David Rowley, cabinetmaker at Mt. Lebanon

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

7 thoughts on “'The Encyclopedia of Shaker Furniture'

  1. J Nelson

    I just bought this book. I am surprised how often the Shakers painted furniture. Their philosophy of simplicity is apparent in their joinery which is subdued. Why did they cover the natural beauty of the wood?

  2. Joe Grittani

    Chris –

    I have The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture" by the same authors.
    Is this an expanded version of that book or a completely new volume?

    Joe Grittani

  3. Gary Roberts

    Absolutely one of my favorite books on Shaker furniture and Shaker life. I picked up a copy when it first came out and will never let it go. Other books may come and go from my shelves, but the Shaker books stay put. It’s not that I idolize their work, but that the best of their work is stupendous in form and balance.

    Visiting Hancock Shaker Village is a must for anyone venturing to the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Just don’t drool on the floors. It’s a museum.

    Gary

  4. David

    Chris – This is a Schiffer book, and they’re usually pretty good about producing reasonable quality bindings. Perhaps there was something defective about your particular copy (or a run of copies when it was printed)? Mine hasn’t had the problems you’ve described, so perhaps it’s possible that Schiffer will warranty their work – it might be worth the phone call.

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Not entirely true….

    The White Water Shakers ran a brewery for their own use. And the South Union, Ky., Shakers made and drank bourbon.

    Also, according to John Kirk’s book, chastity was recommended but not required among the early Shakers. It became codified a little later.

    But yes, in general, I’ll stick to the construction ideals.

    Chris

  6. Alex Grigoriev

    Whatever it takes, Chris, don’t let your wife to know about Shaker ideals. You know, they didn’t do sex and beer. At all.

  7. Old Baleine

    This is an excellent book. However, there is irony and frustration when a book that deals with a craft tradition falls apart because the publisher compromised on the very craft that holds the book together. The text block of my copy of this book exists in "hunks", where the binding has disintegrated, but sections remain glued together. The problem is not that the publisher should have used a better glue, but that the binding was glued in the first place. There is no excuse for a book of this quality to have such a shoddy binding. I’m not sure this is a meaningful comparison, but it’s as if you were to build one of the case pieces in the book, and assemble it with wall paper paste. It’s just wrong.

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