Craft as Worship


6 February 2017

With only two Shakers left alive, the American religious group is likely to soon vanish. Its legacy however persists through the group's traditional wooden furniture, often cited as an example of a particularly pure form of craftsmanship. During Toronto's Offsite Design Festival this January, Mjölk – a lifestyle shop and gallery based in Toronto – held an exhibition exploring the sect’s influence on design.

That Is Best Which Works Best juxtaposed examples of original Shaker furniture with both 20th-century European pieces and new works by three commissioned designers: Hallgeir Homstvedt, Thom Fougere and musician Jason Collett. "What is this weird cult movement from America?", says Mjölk's owner John Baker, mocking the general public's lack of knowledge about the Shakers. Baker was born in southeastern Canada, close to the last remaining Shaker village in Maine, and has been aware of the group since his childhood. When Baker encountered echoes of the religious group's craftsmanship in Danish modern design, he became more interested in the Shaker aesthetic.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers, was established in the north-west of England in the 18th century as a splinter group of the Quakers. The group's shortened name originates from its ecstatic worship, which involved mass dances and symbolic gestures. Soon spreading out across America, the Shakers were pacifistic, communal and celibate. Remarkably for the time, Shakers also believed in complete gender equality. Even at its peak, the Shaker movement only had around 6,000 members, a relatively small figure. After the American Civil War, its numbers began to shrink drastically. "I think it's fascinating,” says Baker. “It existed, it was popular, and then died as quickly as it got popular. It was a really short period of time when you think about the history of religion."

Yet the group had a big impact on furniture design. There are antique shops in the US dedicated to Shaker furniture, where items often reach enormous prices. Since the 19th century, and in reaction to these prices, manufacturers have produced replicas and distributed them across the world. The exhibition at Mjölk aimed to unravel the reasons behind the style’s enduring popularity. By contextualising them with modern and contemporary reinterpretations, it opened a discussion about the Shaker's work, design practices and influence.

Homstvedt, Fougere and Collett each designed objects that echo those found in Shaker households, including a fire tool set, a doverail shelf and a mirror. Baker collaborated with Collett, for example, on a light-wood dining table. Such tables were the centrepiece of most Shaker rooms, where they prefigured contemporary use by serving as both eating-place and work surface. Elegantly minimal, functional and respectful to natural materials, the table carries the Shaker belief in practicality without sacrificing beauty and quality.

"Since the beginning of religion,” explains Baker, “there were always these great gestures to show your devotion to God – monuments, cathedrals, massive mirror paintings – but for the Shakers, every act of craft is an act of worship.” The creation of furniture thus becomes something both rarefied and humble. "When they designed a chair,” continues Baker, “they hoped that an angel would come from heaven and sit on it. That was the level they were striving for."

Modern interest in Shaker furniture is focused around appearance rather than spirituality. When the Danish modern pioneer Kaare Klint came across a Shaker chair, he ordered drawings and commissioned a replica for use as teaching aids. At this point, he only knew that this ladder-back rocking chair was American; he had no idea about the Shakers. After 1937, when Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrew's book Masterpieces of Shaker Furniture was published in Denmark, the style became a major influence on the country’s designers. Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen both used Shaker prototypes to aid their design. When mass-produced Scandinavia furniture began to be sold around the world in the 1950s and 60s, echoes of Shaker style began to filter into households and businesses far removed from the sect’s ascetic lifestyles.

With the rise of post-modernism in the 60s, Danish design as a whole moved away from the strictly functional, but Shaker influence still persists among craft-focused design practices today. Along with their clean aesthetic, the Shaker’s devotion to creating superior objects for ordinary, everyday use has proven attractive to designers. “If you use something everyday,” explains Baker, “it has to be exceptionally well-made.”