How the Shaker movement shaped homes around the world

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Admittedly, there was more to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing than pegs, ladder-back chairs and quilts. The Shakers, as they were otherwise known, were an English religious sect that fled to America’s east coast in the 18th century to create communities predicated on abstinence, celibacy and pacifism.

Today, just two members remain, yet their devotion to simplicity, utility and beauty are evergreen influences on the design world, as this year’s edition of Design Miami will attest.
Shakers believed that crafting things by hand was an act of worship, so it is surprising that their furniture hasn’t been displayed at the collectible design world’s most beloved event before now. The New York-based antiques dealer John Keith Russell, who has been dealing Shaker furniture since 1979, will present eight pieces at the furniture fair. His presence at the fair signals a renewed appraisal in design of this era.

“It’s always been a bit too contemporary for those that collected William and Mary or Queen Anne furniture,” Russell said. “Historically, the collectors of Shaker material have always been those that have embraced modern and contemporary art, going back to the beginning of the 20th century when artists themselves were the primary collectors.”


Beauty, usefulness and simplicity were key principles of the Shaker’s understanding of design. This pine shop desk (c. 1830) was made to help document and bring order to everyday labors. Credit: Courtesy John Keith Russell

While the number of Shaker communities had dwindled by the early 1900s, its design principles found a younger relation in the American studio craft movement of the mid-20th century. Furniture makers like George Nakashima, Sam Maloof and David Ebner all demonstrated the same interest in craftsmanship, attention to detail and enthusiasm for the natural characteristics of wood as their Shaker forefathers.

Nakashima described himself as a “Japanese Shaker.” (Born to Japanese parents, Nakashima lived and worked mostly in Pennsylvania.) As Robert Aibel, director of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, who will show a series of works by Nakashima and David Ebner at Design Miami, explained: “Nakashima shared their interest in using contrasting woods — the Shakers were among the first to do this — and natural finishes.”

An international revival

Furniture of the 20th-century American studio craft movement are still desirable, as these George Nakasmima pieces in a Miami collector’s home show. Credit: Courtesy Moderne Gallery

So where’s all this love of woody Americana come from?

“American patriotism has taken on an entirely new meaning in 2017, and people in the United States are fiercely divided between looking towards the future or restoring and preserving a make-up that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Brandon Grom, director of exhibitions at Design Miami. “The appetite for Americana comes from an appreciation of its simplicity and the foundation for a lot that came after.”

Aibel at Moderne Gallery posits that interest in furniture made of natural materials is a reaction to the increasing use of artificial materials in design.

“Letting the wood speak for itself on some level — bringing us back into a relationship with trees and nature — is an important reason for the appeal of this work,” he said. It is also market-driven: “I don’t think the display of Shaker work at the fair is due to an American interest in Americana. Rather, what we have seen over the past five years or so has been an emerging European interest in American design.”

Indeed, this current wave of interest in Shaker style stretches across the pond. In 2015, the Parisian furniture dealer Laffanour-Galerie Downtown mounted a display of Shaker works in collaboration with contemporary art dealer Philippe Ségalot at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Netherlands. The 30 works ranged in price from $9,000 to $300,000.

Last year, Portland design firm Studio Gorm curated an exhibition of Shaker-influenced contemporary design in Stockholm and New York. “Furnishing Utopia” saw Studio Gorm work with 14 design studios to create 55 Shaker-inspired pieces.

“The Shakers wouldn’t really have considered themselves designers, but they have some pretty great principles that guide the making of things, and they are helpful guiding principles to designing objects today,” said co-founder John Arndt.

Members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming Quaker sect — also known as the Shaker movement — perform a religious dance circa 1835. Credit: MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Shakers were ahead of their time in aspects far beyond furniture. They believed that gender equality, racial equality, liberal spiritual values and philanthropy were positive steps to create heaven on earth. They believed in sharing ideas, technology and information to everyone’s betterment and eschewed trends and fashion. It’s no wonder the Shaker’s three-dimensional output is being embraced by some.

The Shakers, and the 20th-century American studio craft movement that followed, handcrafted precious, limited-edition furniture long before collectible design fairs came along. Shakers believed that conceiving cupboards and drawers as part of the architecture was more efficient, meaning freestanding Shaker pieces are hugely desirable.

“The vast majority was built-in and most of the (existing) pieces are in museums or they have been destroyed,” said dealer Russell of its exclusivity and why it is finding a new collector base today. “That’s why it is among the rarest of American material culture,” says Russell.

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