SHAKER CRAFTSMANSHIP SOUND AND SIMPLE THIS WEEK AT LIVEAUCTIONTALK.COM
Shaker Sewing Desk; red-stained; circa 1830; 40 ¼ inches high by 30 ¾ inches wide; sold for $67,650. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.
Building a heaven on earth is something the Shakers took to heart. Their communities would serve as a refuge from the world, a universe unto themselves that would inspire their communal way of life.
From the roof lines of their buildings to the placement of windows and the construction of thick stone foundations and simple four-post chairs--everything was by design.
“We think that man cannot hope to attain a spiritual heaven until he first creates a heaven here on earth,” one brother said.
It’s a mindset that may seem foreign today, but for the Shakers creating a utopian world was a reality.
From picket fences to door handles, nothing was left to chance. Nothing was created with a hurried hand.
A celibate society, their 4,000-6,000 member culture is all but extinct today, but the spirit with which they lived and died remains palpable. A commitment to simplicity and perfection resulted in a subtle beauty and serene environment in Shaker villages.
Unlike the Amish, they were open to technology. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, TV and cars were all acceptable.
Shakers had no role models in America when they formally started out in 1787 in New Lebanon, New York. Their farmland was barren and they spent the early years improving the fields and crops.
They also didn’t see themselves as any kind of artists or designers. They simply wanted to build things with the utmost attention, simplicity and care. In their view ornamentation for its own sake was a sinful indulgence. Everything had to be practical. Their sound, simple construction resulted in side chairs that could be lifted with one finger.
Thomas Merton said the “peculiar grace” of a Shaker chair came out of a belief that an angel might come and sit on it.
Do not make what is not useful was their creed. What they did make was often extraordinary whether it was a basket, a blanket box, or a sewing stand. They disallowed the trends of the day resulting in an honesty and integrity of design that remains distinctive today.
Religion clearly entered into their workplace, no carvings, inlays, accessories, or veneerings in their furniture—nothing to distract the eye from the whole. It was about purity of design and unity. Uncomplicated and elegant.
Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful. That’s Shaker design in a nutshell.
The Shakers sought simplicity in death too. Their early graveyards featured plain wood or stone markers. They were eventually replaced in a few communities with cast-iron markers, uniform in shape and design. No urns. No angels. No vases of flowers. The name, dates and age at death were enough.
On June 4, Skinner Auctioneers featured The Shaker collection of Erhart Muller on the block. Here are some current values.
Cabinet Photos; 3; Harvard, Mass., Shakers; includes residents and buildings; $308.
One-drawer Table; Enfield, New Hampshire; 1917; 25 ½ inches high by 22 ¼ inches wide; $52,275.
Sewing Desk; red-stained; circa 1830; 40 ¼ inches high by 30 ¾ inches wide; $67,650.
Candlestand; red-stained; early-19th century; 25 inches high; $86,100.
Alphabet Board; Harvard, Mass., 19th century; 20 ½ inches high by 159 ½ inches long; $104,550.
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