You’ve probably sat in, or at least seen, a Shaker chair before. It’s a simple and elegant wood design composed of turned posts, a ladder back, square woven seat, and four legs with dowels between them. It’s light enough to easily move around, and even hang on a wall peg for storage.
Like this chair, all Shaker furniture is symbolic of the values of the utopian spiritual sect that designed it and gave the style its name—values that are overdue for a comeback today.
“Shakers are a model of sustainability—environmentally, economically, and socially,” says Sarah Margolis-Pineo, a curator at the Hancock Shaker Village, a former Shaker Village in Massachusetts that’s now a museum. “They created communities that were fully self-sustaining and existing beside the world, as they called it. There’s value in the legacy of these autonomous utopian spaces now.”
In 1787, members of a religious group known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—who became known as the “Shakers” for worship rituals that involved trembling, whirling, and shaking—fled persecution in England for freedom in the Americas. Led by Mother Ann Lee, this group of eight Shakers settled in New York, near Albany, and began gathering followers and establishing villages throughout the United States.
Shakers, like all utopian thinkers, believed that it was possible to create a perfect society; all of their philosophies were in service of creating heaven on earth. The Shaker movement is part of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that sparked conversion. It was the same cultural force that inspired John Humphrey Noyes to establish his Oneida commune of Perfectionists, and fostered Mormonism.
Shaker society was founded on racial and gender equality, pacifism, and communal living. Sex and procreation were strictly forbidden. Confessing sins was strongly encouraged. Mother Ann Lee experienced four miscarriages, which likely informed her celibacy doctrine. Liberating women from life-threatening childbirth was key to gender equity in Shaker society. To become a Shaker, someone had to convert or be adopted.
Shakers built their villages in remote areas, away from the perceived sin and corruption of cities. At their peak, in the mid 19th century, there were about 5,000 members who lived in 19 villages in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. Shakers conceived of their villages as self-sustaining communities that existed outside of mainstream society, and so farmed all their own food and made pretty much everything they needed themselves. Because of that, they innovated their own tooling, manufacturing processes, and objects.
“I view [Shaker Villages] as a total work of art,” says Margolis-Pineo. “They crafted this environment that was a holistic approach to architecture, industrial design, and spirituality.”
Another part of Shaker life was living honestly and simply, and these values were reflected in the structures they built and the furniture and household objects they designed. Ornamentation—like carvings and inlays—were deemed excessive; veneers were considered deceitful. Furniture and objects were typically made from readily available wood, with rectilinear forms, and finished only with oils or paint. Some tenets of Shaker design were codified in their “Millennial Laws,” the guidebook of rules for the sect. This included what colors could be used—just blues, greens, reds, and yellows.
When Shakers made furniture for themselves, it was often customized for the person who would be using it. There’s also long history of modifying tools and objects for the needs of aging people, and people with disabilities.
Shakers also sold their furniture to outsiders, and were always looking for ways to improve their goods and produce them more efficiently. They modified a standard trestle table so that the truss was closer to the tabletop, offering more legroom. Their chair tilter—a ball and socket attachment for the base of a chair’s back legs—enabled a person to lean back without scratching the floor. They invented the flat broom, to make cleaning easier, and a tool with which to make them. They also invented the “clothespin,” or a wall-mounted peg board used to hang garments or objects.
But it was chairs that made Shakers renowned. In the 1860s, the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village relied on chair making as one of its primary industries. Their work was so highly regarded and so greatly coveted that non-Shaker furniture makers began producing knockoffs. In the 1870s, they began advertising campaigns to warn shoppers about fakes, saying: “Beware of imitation chairs which are sold for our make.” They also began stamping their goods so buyers could easily recognize genuine articles.
Shaker furniture was relatively mundane through the 1800s and early 20th century. But it became very valuable as a collectible in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, the Shakers are at risk of dying out—there are only two left in the entire world. However, their legacy endures through the objects they made, which are in museums around the world. Contemporary designers, furniture makers, and master craftspeople are keeping Shaker woodworking traditions alive, reinterpreting them for today’s audiences.
And today, amid an environmental crisis marked by too much junk destined for landfills, Shaker values of honest, well-made, utilitarian design are more relevant than ever.
“It’s about intention with the Shakers—the intention in that space was to honor the spirit, to create heaven and earth,” says Margolis-Pineo. “What would that intention be in today’s world? We’re at a point where we have to modify human behavior, and that’s possible through design, which influences behavior.”