The Second (and Third) Coming

A new exhibition traces the Shakers’ distinctive influence on midcentury and contemporary furniture.

It was an armed rocking chair of exquisite design. Precisely how it made its way to Denmark in 1927 was a mystery, but when Kaare Klint, a forefather of Danish Modernism, encountered it there that year, he was completely taken with its minimalist form and elegant proportions. He commissioned one of his students at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to make detailed drawings and had a replica built to use as a teaching tool. Klint always assumed that the chair was an inspired piece of American Colonial design. He was surprised to discover years later that its true origin was Shaker.

Shaker design is often thought of as plain and provincial (if masterly so), in keeping with the ethos of hard work and simple living that defined the famously celibate Protestant furniture makers. But the style, with its clean lines and functional forms, has also had a surprisingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan influence. Long after Klint, a generation of Scandinavian designers—including midcentury Modernists Hans Wegner and Børge Mogensen—produced Shaker-inspired pieces, as have such far-flung contemporary furniture makers as George Nakashima and Antonio Citterio. The history and legacy of Shaker design will soon be on display in Out of This World: Shaker Design Past, Present, and Future, an exhibit that opens June 16 at the Shelburne Museum , in Vermont. “Our goal is for people to come out of this exhibition understanding what Shaker design really is and what is legitimate Shaker-inspired design,” senior curator Jean Burks says. “The word Shaker has been so bandied about that it’s lost its true meaning.”

The Shakers, whose modest communities thrived in America from about the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, made austere yet obsessively crafted objects that eschewed veneers, carvings, inlays, and other decorative embellishments. Yet they were not averse to the use of color; indeed, they splurged on it. “They had bottle-green beds, chrome-yellow washstands, and Prussian-blue counters,” Burks says. (It was only when the furniture traveled outside their communities that it was stripped down to the familiar plain wood.) Also overlooked is the Shakers’ subtle use of asymmetry. Though cabinetmakers generally employed balanced forms to create a sense of unity and solidity, they also deviated from symmetry when the functional purpose of the object called for it.

At the Shelburne, contemporary pieces by Joep van Lieshout and Roy McMakin pay homage to these details—yet some caution against drawing too strong a connection between Shaker furniture and modern-day forms. The Shakers, after all, embraced a very circumscribed way of life, whereas many of today’s designers hope to play an active role in creating new possibilities for ways of living. “Shaker furniture was really a result of a lifestyle for the Shakers,” associate curator Kory Rogers says. “Modernism was intended to affect a lifestyle.”

Recent Programs