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Period Features: Shaker Kitchens

PERIOD FEATURES: Shaker style kitchens entered our urban lives in the late 80s early 90s  when some people started to romanticise about country values and a simpler lifestyle, at least in décor, after the excesses of the pr ...

PERIOD FEATURES: Shaker style kitchens entered our urban lives in the late 80s early 90s  when some people started to romanticise about country values and a simpler lifestyle, at least in décor, after the excesses of the previous years. Since then it has established itself as a mainstream option with all the big stores offering their own version. Today the Shaker kitchen is considered a very safe bet because of its timeless quality and classic good looks.

Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts was a working village from 1790-1960.
Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts was a working village from 1790-1960.

Here is a brief history of Shaker furniture as seen on the Willowbank Joinery website – it’s worth taking a look at to appreciate the roots of this aesthetic which we take so much for granted:  http://www.willowbankjoinery.co.uk

The highly functional design that typifies Shaker furniture has timeless appeal that has outlived the culture itself.  Developed by the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, whose followers were known as Shakers, the furniture placed heavy emphasis on practicality and comfort, not on ornamental decor as was typical prior to pre-1900 and post-20th century cabinetmakers outside the Shaker community.

Shaker toolmakers, inventors and cabinetmakers took uncommon pride in every detail. Tabitha Babbitt, Ken Hakuta, John Kassay and Isaac N. Youngs played important and lasting role in the emergence and sustainability.

Works by these master are highly sought after. Shaker furniture benefited from singular qualities of functionality and practicality first over style, though the lack of décor or inlaid trim characterises the finished pieces in the genre. Another distinctive characteristic of this furniture is the lack of exaggerated curves that was popular with many European craftsmen of the era.

The craft of building Shaker furniture became a core business of the New Lebanon Shaker community in the 1860s. Works from this particular community would come to represent furniture built by all Shaker communities and craftsmen.

Timeless Appeal

The design of historic and authentic Shaker furniture is usually described as minimalist. So acclaimed is the craftsmanship and design that work by the “believers” is permanently on display in the Shaker Retiring Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which is regarded as the finest collection of Shaker furniture and textiles in the world.

All Shaker furniture was constructed with functional form and proportion. Inlays, carvings, metal pulls and veneers are noticeably absent from authentic Shaker furniture. To increase the functionality and retain the distinctive proportions, Shaker cabinetmakers fashioned asymmetrical drawers and multi-purpose forms that added visual interest but by all standards, this furniture is plain.

The commitment to simplicity, utility and honesty in Shaker furniture was intentional and steadfast. To view the “ladder back” or turned post chairs, can be intimidating by what appears to be such a straightforward or “honest” design. Shaker chairs look uncomfortable but the utility of the design is actually surprisingly appealing. The design was easy to duplicate so woven seats were produced quickly and put to work soon as completed.

Shaker tables, chairs, rocking chairs and cabinets remain in strong demand today. Modern furniture manufacturers emulate the style, with the works less-often composed of cherry, maple or pine lumber the way original Shaker furniture was built. The influence of Shaker cabinetmakers is still felt in modern design in number of ways, including the simplistic approach.

The Shakers

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing still represent one of the most intriguing experiments in communal living in American history. The only surviving sect is in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. In the mid-19th century, this Protestant sect had more than 6,000 members spread across 18 communities ranging from Maine in the north to Kentucky in the south. The largest and most influential community was settled in New Lebanon, New York, and existed from 1787 until 1947 with very few changes in living style.

The communities were totally self-sufficient. They not only made their own furniture but also planted what they ate, built their own housing and community buildings and manufactured their own tools. In fact, authentic Shaker tools are also highly valuable.

Shakers settled in the colonies from England beginning in 1774. The original settlers were led by Ann Lee. The term Shaker evolved from the dance techniques used by the followers who had a penchant for ecstatic movements during their dance.

The group lived under a strict code of conduct and their goods reflected this lifestyle. Their behaviour, attire and domestic environments were as plain as could be. As straightforward as the culture was, it should not be surprising that they were equally progressive. They recognised racial and sexual equality. As celibacy was part of the faith, many communities had to recruit members from outside to sustain the culture long-term.

The important fact about Shakers and their furniture and lifestyle was that honesty, utility and simplicity reigned supreme. In order to sustain this in their furniture, Shaker cabinetmakers were both creative and innovative in their designs.

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