Rethinking Shaker Design
An examination of the furniture built by the Western communities expands our notions of what is ‘Shaker.’
by Kerry Pierce
From the February 2006 issue, #153
The restored Shaker community at Pleasant Hill, Ky., gives admirers of Shaker architecture, furniture and life an opportunity to get very close to the source of that admiration. Guests can stay in rooms once home to Shaker Brothers and Sisters. They can walk a gravel boulevard that once was a part of a turnpike connecting the Pleasant Hill community to the outside world. They can tour the gardens and fields that once put food on Shaker tables. They can even dine in the Village Trustees’ Office in much the same way as 19th-century visitors to Pleasant Hill once dined in the company of the community’s Shakers.
Although the rooms in which visitors stay are furnished with reproductions of Pleasant Hill originals, it’s possible to move from room to room in the Centre Family Dwelling and look firsthand at original Pleasant Hill chairs, tables and casework.
In such a setting, it’s possible to immerse the senses in the Shaker experience; and for makers and/or admirers of Shaker-inspired furniture, that’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Furniture by Law
Although Mother Ann Lee, the Prophetess who led the very first group of Shakers into the American wilderness of New York State, did not herself write, her views on all things Shaker eventually became codified in the “Millennial Laws” published years after her death. Although most of the material in the 1845 laws refers to issues of worship and personal conduct, some of it touches on the subject of furnishings for Shaker dwellings and can provide modern students of Shaker design some insight into Mother Ann’s thinking. The following line from the “Millennial Laws,” for example, provides a theoretical underpinning for the design of furniture and architecture: “Beadings, mouldings, and cornices which are merely for fancy may not be made by Believers.”
During the following century, this and other similar directives guided the hands of Shaker craftsmen as they designed and constructed the buildings and furnishings for their environments. In addition, when the Shakers purchased goods from the outside world – as was the case, for example, with many of the timepieces so necessary in the regimented lifestyle of these communalists – they stripped away superfluous ornamentation before adopting those items into their culture.
But Shaker furniture didn’t spring fully formed from the directives of Mother Ann Lee. That furniture was firmly rooted in the country furniture of the period in which it was built. The first Pleasant Hill makers – Kentuckians who migrated to the region from Eastern states – brought with them the design vocabularies of country furniture in those Eastern states. Later, as Kentucky craftsmen in the outside world began to develop an identifiable regional style, that style, too, was added to the Pleasant Hill mix. What resulted was an aesthetic that is identifiable both as Shaker – in most cases – and Western. (“Western” in this context refers to communities in the Western extremity of the Shaker nation, including the Pleasant Hill and South Union communities in Kentucky.)
Patterns Familiar and Odd
When the Shakers stripped surface ornamentation from period furniture, they drew our attention to the forms underlying that ornamentation.
Instead of carving and veneering, we see the height and width of chests and cupboards. We see the height and width of drawers and doors. We see pattern as drawers ascend a chest front, as doors move across a cupboard.
In some cases, these basic forms are arranged according to furniture-making tradition, when, for example, a set of drawers is graduated from a large bottom drawer to a small top drawer. The cupboard-over-chest below exhibits this type of graduation. The bottom drawer front is 8-7⁄8″ wide, the next one up measures 8-1⁄8″, the next one up measures 7″, and the top drawer measures only 5-7⁄8″. This orderly progression is one our experience with drawers encourages us to accept.
At other times, however, Shaker craftsmen manipulated these basic forms for reasons of function of which we now may be unaware. The drawers of the second cupboard-over-chest were graduated in a way that is less familiar, a way that was perhaps intended to suit a particular use. Instead of the largest drawer being at the bottom – as can be seen in the chest of drawers below – the drawers of this cupboard-over-chest are graduated in reverse, with the largest drawer being at the top. The bottom drawer front measures 8″ wide, the next one up measures 9-1⁄2″ and the top drawer measures 10″.
Why the Eccentric Design?
It seems unlikely that the maker learned his craft this way. There is a centuries-old tradition of graduating drawers with the smaller drawers to the top. More likely, the maker was meeting a particular need in the Shaker community, one that required a large drawer at waist height.
He was, in effect, grafting onto the Shaker appreciation of the basic form the architecture aphorism: “Form follows function.”
My first experience with this kind of design eccentricity made me a little uncomfortable. Thirty years ago, when I discovered Shaker furniture, I had little experience with work that didn’t follow the familiar patterns of classical American period furniture. Shaker focus on simplicity and function opened my eyes, demonstrating to me that there are other “right” ways to design a piece of furniture, and these ways were not confined to matters of drawer graduation.
In the world outside the Shaker community, table, chest and cupboard tops were usually made with shaped edges. At the very least, these edges were given a slight radius, but many Pleasant Hill tops are simply cut square. The top of the chest of drawers at left is one example. The intermediate top in the cupboard on the previous page, the top of the drawer unit, is another.
Here, too, we are forced to see not the embellishment of the basic form (a moulded edge), but the form itself – the simple, unsoftened rectangle of wood that makes up the chest top.
Shaker furniture – with its unadorned squares, rectangles and cylinders – forces us to look with fresh eyes at the fundamental shapes which, combined, make up a piece of furniture. In Shaker hands, these shapes were not simply blank canvasses on which the craftsman could seduce the eye with carving, veneering and moulding. They are shapes worthy of our appreciation in their own right. There is beauty in a simple rectangle, in a simple square, in a simple circle. Shaker Brothers Calvin Green and Seth Youngs Wells explained it this way in “A Summary View of the Millennial Church or United Society of Believers,” published in 1823: “Any thing may, with strict propriety, be called perfect, which perfectly answers the purpose for which it was designed. A circle may be called a perfect circle when it is perfectly round ….” It is the pursuit of this state of fundamental perfection – coupled with the primacy of function – that distinguishes the best Shaker work.
There are, of course, some details of Pleasant Hill furniture in which craftsmen deviated from this focus on basic forms. Many of the early chests of drawers have turned feet, which present a succession of coves and beads that seem out of place on a piece that otherwise exhibits little embellishment. Each foot of the chest of drawers at left includes a pair of wide coves, each topped by a narrow bead.
In addition, each of the drawer fronts is framed in a scratched narrow bead meant to simulate a decorative effect seen on much high-style furniture of the period. High-style furniture often featured drawer fronts framed in thin mitered strips tacked in place so that the front edge of these strips – rounded to a bead – was standing proud of the drawer front. Sometimes these strips, called cock beading, were tacked to the drawer front itself. Sometimes they were tacked to the opening in which the drawer front was housed.
Cock beading provided an appealing detail to high-style furniture, but it represented a significant investment of time, an investment that makers of simpler, county furniture could not always justify. As a result, country furniture makers in Kentucky and elsewhere often created a simulated cock beading around drawer fronts. In the case of very large drawer fronts, that cock beading might be created with a side-bead plane (a kind of moulding plane), but much more often the craftsman would use a shop-made tool called a scratch stock. A scratch stock is simply a bit of thin metal fixed in a wooden holder. The bit of thin metal would be cut with the shape of a bead and quirk – a narrow recessed part of a moulding. It would then be drawn around the perimeter of the drawer front, scratching out a little bead, which – at least at a distance – resembled a cock bead. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, this lowly tool could produce a reasonable facsimile, but more often scratch-stock cock beads – particularly on the ends of drawers where the scratch stock had to be dragged across the grain – were often crudely formed.
Such deviations from the theoretical foundation of Shaker furniture do not – in my view – detract from the beauty of that furniture. The bits of decorative turning and scratched cock bead are nothing more than minor imperfections that serve to put a human signature on the work of the Pleasant Hill craftsmen.
Laboring for God
It’s impossible to understand the Shakers without appreciating the importance of work in their culture. Their movement began at a time when the mere maintenance of human life required a significant output of labor. But of course, the Shakers of Pleasant Hill did much more than maintain life. In the first three decades of the 19th century, they erected a community in the Kentucky wilderness that remains today as a monument to human effort.
Anyone who tours the enormous restored Shaker community at Pleasant Hill will be struck by the amount of labor the community represents. The Centre Family Dwelling, shown on the first page of this article, was built to provide accommodations for 100 Shakers. It’s made of hand-cut limestone blocks, each one quarried by the Shakers, each one transported to the building site by the Shakers and each one hoisted into place by the Shakers. Then, once the huge facility had been erected, it was fitted with windows and trim – all made by hand – and filled with furniture – also made by hand.
This single structure at Pleasant Hill represents an enormous investment of human labor – labor that the Shakers offered as an act of devotion to God. It is in this context of sanctified labor that the third element of Shaker furniture-making comes into play. It wasn’t enough that furniture be simple and functional; it also had to present a physical manifestation of the sanctity of work.
Simplicity, function and sanctity – these are some of the identifying characteristics of the best Shaker furniture, and these are characteristics that can be read in much of the furniture attributed to Pleasant Hill makers.
Different Than Eastern Shaker Communities
Pleasant Hill furniture makers were aware of the work being produced in the outside world. Many of these makers were simply converts who came into the community as adults, bringing with them intimate knowledge of the world they’d left behind. Plus, throughout its history, the Pleasant Hill community was actively involved in trading with the outside world. This pollination of Shaker vision by regional worldly influences gave the furniture of Pleasant Hill a character that is not quite like the furniture produced in Eastern Shaker communities.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes high-style furniture from its country cousin is the use of thin material. Builders of high-style furniture recognized a need to match thickness to application, a need to use, for example, 1⁄2″ material in situations in which thicker material would look clumsy. Obviously, a reduction in thickness doesn’t enable a piece to better carry a load. The reduction is necessary to impart a measure of visual grace.
Some Pleasant Hill work acknowledges this truth. Like the Shaker furniture of Eastern communities, this work conveys a feeling of lightness through the use of thin material. The hanging cupboard below illustrates this principle. Although it’s supported by an unseen hidden top measuring 7⁄8″ thick, the top we do see is only 3⁄8″ thick, and a further sense of lightness is conveyed via the top’s radiused edge.
According to John T. Kirk, author of “The Shaker World” (Harry N. Abrams), the appearance of lightness and fragility is a notion that, in the case of one New Lebanon drying rack, the Shakers pushed “almost to silliness” with posts measuring only 1-3⁄16″ square. He further describes the seat rungs of a pair of Canterbury cane-seated chairs as “almost ridiculously insubstantial.” This style of construction was possible in a community in which care of the acoutrements of life was mandated by, in the case of the Shakers, Millennial Law, which (among other things) prohibited leaning chairs back against a wall, and even putting one’s feet on the rungs of a chair for fear of wearing out that rung.
Twenty years ago, when I was building my first Shaker rockers, I made a number of examples out of cherry which I had – at least in my mind – turned to perhaps foolishly frail dimensions, with posts only 1-1⁄4″ in diameter and rungs no more than 3⁄4″ in diameter at their centerpoints. Now, when I build those same chairs, I use diameters of 1-3⁄8″ and 7⁄8″. But I should also point out that those early “frail” rockers of mine are still in use in homes scattered across Ohio.
Much Pleasant Hill furniture, however, is built to a different standard, making use of thick material in contexts in which many makers in Eastern Shaker communities would have used thin material.
The top of the little table with eight-sided legs below is one example. The top of that table measures a full 7⁄8″ thick. A table of similar size (with a top 1⁄2″ narrower but more than 7″ longer) from the Hancock community, was drawn by John Kassay in “The Book of Shaker Furniture.” It’s fitted with a top only 7⁄16″ thick (although it is banded in 9⁄16″-wide strips, presumably to keep notions like buttons from falling to the floor). Even if we include the banding as part of the top’s thickness, it still measures 5⁄16″ less than the top of the Pleasant Hill table.
The extra thickness on the Pleasant Hill table might have resulted from nothing more than workshop fatigue, since the top still has what appears to be the marks of a large circular saw, marks a more energetic craftsman would have planed away. This would have resulted in a thinner top of lighter appearance. The apron sections on this table are also thicker than necessary, measuring between 1″ and 1-1⁄8″ in thickness. And although the legs on this table are thinner than on many other Pleasant Hill tables, they are thicker than the legs of many Eastern tables of similar proportions.
In fact, it is in the legs of Pleasant Hill tables that the Western preference for parts thick in cross section is most apparent. The legs of the Leander Gettys work table below are simply massive, with the square upper sections measuring 3-3⁄8″ on a side. True: the table is large, but there are examples of Eastern Shaker tables of similar dimension built with less substantial undercarriages. It’s not just the thickness of the part that gives these legs their visual bulk. It’s the fact that the legs retain most of this thickness along most of their length. Large tables with heavy legs made in Eastern communities have much of their thickness cut away as the legs descend to the floor, resulting in a leg that appears much lighter.
Puzzling the Past
In the evening of my next-to-last day at Pleasant Hill this past summer, I went alone to the rooms above the Meetinghouse. These were the rooms in which the community’s elders and eldresses had lived. They were fitted with a good deal of original Pleasant Hill furniture and probably looked much as they had 150 years ago.
It had been a blistering day, and the rooms were not air-conditioned. Even in the twilight of late evening, the air was hot and close, but spending time in these rooms alone was important to me – so important that I didn’t notice the heat until later, after I’d left the Meetinghouse.
I didn’t touch anything that evening, although I had touched many things during the day as Al Parrish, the magazine’s photographer, and I had carried and turned pieces, moving them into position to be photographed.
Instead, I kept my hands folded behind my back in what I now think was an unconscious attitude of respect for those who had once lived in these rooms.
What they – and the men and women in their charge – had accomplished here in the Kentucky wilderness in the first third of the 19th century, working largely with hand tools, is almost beyond belief.
I looked at lamps, at a ledger, at a marvelous curly cherry secretary. I looked at oval boxes and blanket chests and simple Shaker beds, at rugs, at a mirror, at all the products of Shaker craft on display.
Then in the hallway that connected the rooms, I studied each of the oversized black-and-white photos of 19th-century Pleasant Hill Shakers that hung there, trying to get a sense, via these images, of who these people had been.
The rooms were quiet, the silence broken only by the faint sounds of my feet moving across the wood floors. The only light was the muted late-evening glow coming through the windows.
I like to puzzle over the historical origins of Shaker furniture. I want to know why it is the way it is, but I’m even more interested in the work’s emotional origins.
Did the craftsman who made the sponge-painted oval boxes in the quarters above the Meetinghouse feel the same pride in his workmanship I feel in mine? And what about the maker of that magnificent secretary? Did he step back and admire the beauty and strength of the piece he’d built with his own hands?
To have seen the work as a product of his efforts would have been antithetical to Shaker belief, but would it have been possible to have succeeded so brilliantly at these individual works without taking personal satisfaction in the accomplishment? That is, I think, the paradox of Shaker furniture. When it is good, it is very good.
It is work that, for most modern woodworkers, would provide nourishing meals for healthy egos. Is it possible that the 19th-century Pleasant Hill craftsmen who produced this work could have done so without feeling the pride that we would have felt in their places?
From the February 2006 issue, #153