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With an eye toward perfection
September 29, 2004 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Utopian Christians, despisers of all ornament, in some rough sense protomodernists, the eighteenth- and nineteeth-century millenarian cult known disparagingly as the Shakers has had an impact on the history of design far in excess of its size. (At most, there were only ever a few thousand, and it's easy to understand why, given their emphasis on "perfection" to the point of celibacy.) Key to the Shaker world view was the perfectability of the material world - its purgation of all decoration, artifice and frippery - as an act of worship. This ethos of design, summarized in these theses toward the improvement of the domestic environment, has gifted us with a legacy of highly esteemed craft objects. None has been more celebrated than that canny apotheosis of domestic utility, the Shaker rail, which survives here in a particularly nice contemporary interpretation. If only half the artifacts we're currently offered were as thoughtfully designed...
posted by adamgreenfield (11 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I spent a day within the Enfield Shaker Community in New Hampshire and despite the unfortunate but understandable ban on photographs, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The chairs, the rails, the closets, chests and homes were amazing to see, touch and experience. Function before fashion, indeed. "Tis a gift to be simple..."
posted by shoepal at 9:59 AM on September 29, 2004


Too bad they couldn't breed. They had a great sensibility. But, the celibacy was probably integral to that.
posted by troutfishing at 10:07 AM on September 29, 2004


I think I visited Enfield as a kid and I think that experience turned me on to the concept of design and ergonomics. Most people's encounter with the role of design in Shaker life involves a handful of artefacts, boxes, rails, and chairs. However, visiting that community what amazed me was that the design was carried out on all scales from the design of dining-ware to architecture.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:17 AM on September 29, 2004


Surely the aesthetic once used to cleanse decoration from things is now in and of itself a form of vanity. Surely modern day shakers would nail some MDF boards together if they wanted to keep things simple (didn't read any of the links cos I'm kinda busy so maybe I'm talking hogwash)
posted by zeoslap at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2004


Shaker design (though I hated--HATED!!1!-- it as a child, surrounded by chairs I couldn't jump up and down on) is, to me, the greatest and most uniquely American contribution to design, pre-Corvette Stingray, of course. The rails are only the beginning. The simple beauty of the taped seats, the invention of the tilter chair (mentioned here), their use of great expanses of windows, because light was a "gift from God." Their round barn. Their adult-sized rocking cribs for invalids.

And then, of course, there's the dancing and shrieking and falling on the floor part. They knew how to party.
posted by cowboy_sally at 11:01 AM on September 29, 2004


I'm fascinated by the Shakers. I can't better their philsophy of time management. Live as though you have a thousand years to live and as though this was your last day of live. Never hurry, never waste time.

It's ironic that their most lasting contribution consists of the material objects they made and designed. They regarded the things they made merely as a means to an end.
posted by orange swan at 12:02 PM on September 29, 2004


"I would like to be remembered as one who had pledged myself to the service of God and had fulfilled that pledge as perfectly as I can -- not as a piece of furniture."
--- Sister Mildred Barker


I'm interested to note that virtually all the comments here refer to The United Society of Believers in the past tense. There is still an active, vibrant (though tiny) Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, very near where I grew up. I have, many times, had the unique pleasure of attending their sabbath service, and I can honestly say that it is the only time, in any house of worship, that I have actually felt that there might, indeed be a God.

When I was growing up the community was, of course, larger. Today there are seven or eight active members of the community and it is a little known fact that they do accept new converts (who must begin as novices, in a system very similar to becoming a nun or a monk), but only if you are clearly serious enough about both the life and the faith. I come from a tiny family, and I have always thought that if I suddenly found myself to be alone in the world I might go and join them ... each of them exudes such peace and inner strength that it seems, indeed, they have found a better way of living. Here's a community notes page that will tell you a great deal about what its like to be a Shaker today.

Though they live simply, a bit of reading will show you that early in the century they invented a great many fairly cutting edge things, and today you will find them using tractors, computers, and electric appliances of all kinds. Shakers do not reject technology in the same way that the Amish do, but they use it to make tasks simpler and easier, not just because its available. Perhaps you already know that Shaker communities took in orphans, as late as the Kennedy era, and that they expected the majority of those children to grow up, leave, live, and marry. The life of a Shaker is a life away from the world but not separate from it. The God they worship is not the Catholic god, the trinity, but rather a God made from man and woman. They believe deeply in equality and pacifism. Their beliefs are elegant and logical in the simplicity, and would, I think, meet the spiritual needs of many people, and I sincerely wish that somehow the Shaker religion and belief system could be more widely understood and adopted.
posted by anastasiav at 3:07 PM on September 29, 2004


The distinction between today's Shakers and the original sect is that the former are not, by strict definition, real Shakers. You cannot become a Shaker without giving confession to an elder of the same sex as you, and there are no more male elders--the last ones died in the 1950s. There was a rather large controversy in the 1970s when the Canterbury community refused to acknowledge the members of the Sabbathday Lake. Now that all but one of the "original" Shakers are dead, there was a general, inevitable acceptance of the new community.

The Shakers did believe that the tenets of their faith would live on after them: tolerance, pacifism, equality, etc.-- all great qualities, and as anastasiav pointed out, worthy of examination.

However, the Shakers were able to support themselves by selling their furniture, textiles, medicines, and foodstuffs. Their beliefs are outlived by their product simply because these items are not only tangible but pretty ubiquitous, and I appreciate the design in the same way I appreciate religious art from the Renaissance: from an aesthetic, not spiritual, point of view.
posted by cowboy_sally at 3:47 PM on September 29, 2004


At hand, a book of Guy Davenport's. He writes -

By hindsight we can see that the Shakers are architectural pioneers a good century and a half ahead of the times. Practically everything we call modern is implicit in Shaker design. Dutch and Danish simplicity has followed but never surpassed the Shakers. When the Bauhaus and its master Walter Gropius announced that art as ornament and adjunct must disappear by resolving into the total design of rooms and buildings (an idea the Bauhaus took from the Russian constructivists), the Shakers had been there before them. Indeed, Mother Ann Lee's rule that "every force evolves a form" was a text we are more familiar with in the theories of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

It was on a winter day in Kentucky more than twenty years ago that I heard Thomas Merton say that "the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."

posted by chymes at 4:03 PM on September 29, 2004


The distinction between today's Shakers and the original sect is that the former are not, by strict definition, real Shakers. You cannot become a Shaker without giving confession to an elder of the same sex as you, and there are no more male elders--the last ones died in the 1950s. There was a rather large controversy in the 1970s when the Canterbury community refused to acknowledge the members of the Sabbathday Lake.

I think the community at Sabathday Lake would disagree with you, and I think you might feel differently if you were able to spend any time with the community members there.

In the '60's, the communities agreed to stop taking in new members as much out of fear that they would be "taken over" by young people seeking a "back to the land" lifestyle as because of the lack of male elders. My impression has always been (although we've never spoken about it directly) is that the controversy you refer to had more to do with the SDL community deciding to take in any new members (and thus breaking the agreement made with the other communities) than anything else ... but of course much can be cloaked under the schismatic blanket. (See this page of the Smithsonian article I linked above for a few more details.)

In any case, even if you feel that the male community members are not "real" Shakers, there is certainly no reason why the female community members should be thought of in the same way. As you yourself admit, members still live at the SDL community who have been active for 70 years or more.

Its also worth noting, of course, that since the Shakers were founded by a woman, no man could ever be a "real" shaker, since the original men of the sect all had to give their first confession to a woman.

Now that all but one of the "original" Shakers are dead, there was a general, inevitable acceptance of the new community.

Well, that's not strictly true. Since Shakers have lived in the US since 1787, the "original" Shakers all died a long time ago.
posted by anastasiav at 4:33 PM on September 29, 2004


Thanks, adam. Always interesting to learn more about this sect, which I've previously researched a bit out of curiosity. My grandmother was a shaker for many years in her youth. I think she was raised a quaker and became a shaker, but it's not inconceivable (and yes, that word does mean what I think it means) that it could've been the other way around (if her parents converted after she was born). She died last year, though, so now I'll probably never get it sorted out. At any rate, when she met my grandfather, a Methodist, she converted (obviously, or else you wouldn't be reading this post).
posted by soyjoy at 8:04 PM on September 29, 2004


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