Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Virtue of Fragility

This week I’m trying to pry my way inside the heads of the Shakers. After years of building the furniture, it’s remarkable how little I know about the people themselves. So I’ve been plowing through “The Shaker World” by John T. Kirk. The book is a real eye-opener because it discusses the whole Shaker experience and ties the believers into the world at large , instead of isolating them like lab specimens.

The book has helped me reconcile something that’s been nagging me for years. Have you ever seen the Shaker drying racks? They are almost ridiculously fragile and seem at total odds with the rugged dovetails and pinned mortise-and-tenon joints that mark many of their case pieces.

Kirk explains this fragility as part of the ying and yang of the Shaker life. Because they were isolated and had highly regulated behavior (they had rules about how many people could sleep to a bed), the Shakers could create objects of immense grace and fragility and ensure that the objects would be handled by the believers with care.

For example, they had rules about how to walk on the carpets: “When brethren or sisters go up or down stairs they should not slip their feet on the carpet, but take them up and set them down plumb, so as not to wear out the carpets unnecessarily.” And then there are more rules about how to make a turn on the carpet. (My children would not have fared well in the Shaker communities.)

Yet the Shakers also prized rugged construction. Their farm implements and some of the furniture was decidedly overbuilt at times. Kirk explains this proclivity as necessary for the rural life of the believers.

In addition to reading “The Shaker World,” I’m now experimenting with finishes for the next cover project for the magazine. The Shakers prized both paint and varnish, and I’m trying to come up with a finishing schedule for this first version of the cabinet (an adaptation of a cabinet from the Enfield, Connecticut, colony) that looks right and is true to the Shaker tradition. Last night I was applying a base coat of linseed oil to the latch for the cabinet (shown above). The latch turns on a dowel that pierces the entire latch and is wedged in place. There’s nothing precious or fragile there , so perhaps I’m not quite all the way inside their heads just yet.

Christopher Schwarz