What is modern about Shaker?

Furniture from the mid-20th century demonstrates what is possible by using new materials and technologies. The same can be said for 18th-century American furniture by the Shakers. In fact, there are many examples of time periods when radical departures in furniture design are attributable to new technology. But what connects Shaker and mid-20th-century furniture is the form.

The Shaker movement was founded in England in 1747 and in America in 1774. For almost 200 years, the members of the sect established villages from Maine to Kentucky, living in communities separated from "the world," or people who did not share their religious beliefs. As for the name Shaker, it is derived from "shaking Quaker" and referred to the movements the members made when sitting in silent communion. Of the many Shaker virtues, utility, harmony and order were highly esteemed, and these qualities were expressed in the everyday items the Shakers created.

The mid-century modernists have more in common with the shaking aspect (coffee and cigarettes) than with the religious and isolated ways in which the Shakers lived, but they shared the Shakers’ ability to turn a belief system – albeit a very different one – into a physical expression. The belief system that drove the modernists included a desire to create affordable furniture for as many people as possible. The expression of which took the form of simple, functional, well-designed items that could be mass-produced. The Shakers, who numbered 6,000 in the years before the Civil War, didn’t seek involvement with the "world’s people" (non-Shakers), but when they realized the demand for the furniture they created, they began producing it commercially. Different intents drove the Shakers and the modernists to remarkably parallel bodies of work that continue to reverberate today.

Both groups shunned the stylistic traditions of their times, favoring instead simplicity and proportions that met the demands of utility and were in keeping with the human form. Before "less is more" and "form follows function" became modern maxims, the Shakers had long denounced decorative excess in favor of smart, practical furniture. "Beauty rests on utility," believed the Shakers, "and that which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty."

In addition, the Shaker craftspeople did not sign their work, since doing so was believed to represent a display of personal pride and did not reflect Shaker virtues. Modernist furniture designer George Nakashima shared the belief that signing a piece is egocentric, and it was only after Nakashima knock-offs appeared did he agree to mark his work. Nakashima was an MIT-trained architect who was known to describe himself as Japanese Shaker. This label expressed his belief that his designs should be treated as everyday functional objects, not precious possessions.

The market for fakes was something the Shakers were familiar with, especially as their pared-down, functional furniture grew in popularity. Examples of Shaker furniture include lightweight ladder-back chairs that could be hung on the wall when the floors were cleaned, and worktables with push-and-pull drawers that could be accessed from either side, perhaps by two sisters working on their sewing simultaneously. While many people think of Shaker furniture as small in scale, many of their pieces were actually quite large, as they were designed for communal living. An example would be long dining tables and benches meant to be used by as many people in the community as possible. In this way, the Shakers and modernists differed, but for the most part, these groups had a lot in common, especially when it came to carefully considered, straightforward furniture that is just as relevant to how we live today.