The Shakers – why I love their style

posted in: Inspiration | 5

I admit to having a real weakness for Shaker architectural design and furniture. I find the clean lines and commitment to simplicity speaks to me. Although every second kitchen is labelled as “Shaker” these days, no Shaker would recognise themselves in the fussy style, cream MDF and enormous round knobs. With mixer taps and wine coolers.

shaker cabinet
Reproduction Shaker cabinet

We have some modern copies in our home, which you might have seen in my photographs, which are faithful reproductions. We like the fact that their pared down classic style is at the same time both modern, and functional, and traditional. (Alcohol is medicinal, ahem…). We have also adopted peg boards throughout our home as an easy way of keeping our belongings off the floor and out of sight.

Do you think there is something in the Shaker approach to furniture that could influence our attitude to clothes design? Clean, uncluttered lines. Elegant curves and detailing. A limited colour palette. Wood and plaster. Lasting quality and classic style.

shaker village
Interior at Shaker Village

The Shakers were a religious sect founded in 1770 as an offshoot of the Quakers by an illiterate Manchester woman called Ann Lee. They went to America to escape persecution and set up a number of houses where the men and women lived communally but celibate lives. They took in orphans and converts and survived for a century or two, but have more or less died out. They lived a simple life, farming, making their own food, clothes and furniture and worshiping God through silence, dancing and devout living. Their wonderful furniture – simplifying Georgian design until it acquired a simplified, perfected form – was sold to bring income into the communities. They shared everything, and kept all their belongings out of sight in beautifully designed cupboards where the drawers get deeper as you descend. Even the knobs are beautifully designed, smooth and elegant.

Shaker drawers
Storage areas

Many fine examples survive and can be seen in museums throughout America. I would love to visit the community houses in New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky one day. In their architecture, use of light, carefully crafted furniture, and meetings for worship they dedicated their whole lives to the service of God. As Ann Lee preached “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.” It is not a bad thought to inspire contemporary seamstresses.

Shaker meeting house
Shaker Meeting House

Although the Shakers believed that God was both male and female, and women took significant roles in the religious community, the sexes were segregated and the tasks assigned were traditional ones. Women would spin, cook, preserve, spin, weave, make brushes, sew, grow herbs and cultivate kitchen gardens, paint, clean and make clothes for themselves and the men. The Shakers designed many implements and tools, some of which are still in use today, including a particular type of wood-burning stove.

Shaker spining
Spinning at Shaker Village

Here is an original Shaker sewing table. The drawers are just the right size for storing all the equipment you need, and the drawers on different sides would have allowed two or more sisters to work together.

shaker sewing table
sewing table

Do you have a style, period in history or central idea behind your creative endeavours?

5 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    An interesting and informative post. Many of the principles are very appealing, although the silence aspect might be a little bit difficult! The work is elegant and apparently simple but at the same time quite sophisticated. I like it and I definitely see a cross-over into clothing design.

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