Shaking it Up
When most people think of minimalism, they think of mid-twentieth century modern design that espoused clean lines and a form follows function aesthetic. What they don’t think of is the mid-nineteenth century Victorian era. This is understandable, as most Victorian era décor featured ornately carved, overstuffed furniture, and the consumptive display of Kunstkammer knickknacks. But during this time, hidden outside the hustle of the Industrial Age, a growing millenarian community began selling simple, honest furniture to the outside world—that community was the Shakers, the world’s first minimalists.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing originated from a small branch of English Quakers who immigrated to colonial America in the late eighteenth century. Punctuating their spiritual services with ritualistic expressions of shaking, shouting, and whirling, they commonly became known as Shaking Quakers or Shakers.
The Shakers practiced in a socialistic communal society, which in many ways was ahead of its time. Founded by a woman, the sect believed in the equality of the sexes and women continued to hold important leadership throughout its history. In addition, the Shakers dedicated themselves to a life of productive labor, as they believed hard work and attention to detail were a form of worship and prayer. Reform movement leaders like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement espoused a similar kind of “honest” craftsmanship a century later.
This honest craftsmanship carried through into their furniture designs, which in many ways were similar to the design principles advocated by modernists in the twentieth century. Both stressed a purity of design, free from ornamentation and added embellishments that did nothing to add to the object’s usefulness. Both adhered to “form follows function” principle, even if it was never directly stated as such by the Shakers. And both favored the beauty of natural materials free from painted decoration. In fact, the Shakers enforced strict doctrines that dictated these principals. Only meetinghouses could be painted (white), only oval boxes could be stained (red or yellow), and only moveable furniture could be varnished (clear coat).
It is this attention to detail and craftsmanship for which Shakers are best known. Some of the most recognized pieces of Shaker furniture include ladderback chairs, so named by the horizontal rails or spindles that stretch across the back resembling the rungs of a ladder. Ladderbacks originally developed in Europe in the seventeenth century, but the Shakers made them truly American using vernacular woods and adding finials to the tops of the stiles. Seats often varied, made with woven rush, cane, or even cloth.
Recognizing the need to fund their communal society, the Shakers began selling furniture and other wares to the outside world. By 1860, the production of chairs produced for commercial sale provided key financial support to the Mount Lebanon community. While furniture designs changed little over the centuries, modifications were made to improve utility and ease of use.
The Shakers adhered to strict celibacy laws making conversion the only way to increase their membership. While the communities thrived in the nineteenth century, by the twentieth century membership was on the decline. Today only two Shakers remain of this once vibrant community, but their impact on furniture style lives on. Quintessential American, Shaker style furniture remains popular today for its clean, minimalist aesthetic. True Shaker furniture is available in many antique stores throughout the country, but it is possible to find contemporary pieces still being made in this enduing style.