Furniture styles – Shaker
“Fancy articles of any kind, or articles which are superfluously finished, are not suitable for believers, and may not be used or purchased” – From The Millennial Laws of 1845.
Except for the ladder back chair, which became a commercial enterprise, very little of what the Shakers made was sold – it was made by Shaker craftsman for use within the communities.
Shaker Bench, courtesy of Luc Beaulieu, Montreal, PQ
The dominant period for Shaker communities was between 1800 and 1860, where craftsmen in more than 20 different communities made furniture that adhered to their beliefs. Since the early furniture was made by many different craftsman who learned their craft before becoming Shakers, the furniture was not completely uniform. However, it did adhere to the basic elements of simplicity, quality, and lack of ornamentation. Coming from outside of the Shaker community, craftsmen would have been influenced by other styles of the day, including Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and Chippendale. Even with other influences, Shaker furniture became an identifiable style, as it was stripped of ornamentation and had a simplified design.
Since Shakers lived communally, much of their furniture was built on a larger scale than other furniture built at the time. This can be seen in the cupboards, long tables, benches, and large chests of drawers. While it did vary among communities, the essence of the Shaker furniture style is easily recognized. The Shaker style is dominated by attention to detail, lack of ornamentation, excellent joinery, functionality, clean light lines, and highly figured wood. Hardware such as latches and knobs were typically made from wood, with simple hand wrought hinges.
The joinery was comprised of dovetails and mortise and tenon joints. The use of frame and panel construction in Shaker furniture was motivated by a primary concern with the efficient use of wood. In modern times, an additional motivation to use frame and panel design, is to counter the effects of wood movement because of central heating.
Shaker design is consistent in some aspects, however variations exist. The function of the furniture, and its location, often took precedence over design characteristics, such as symmetry, or width/height ratios. While most of what we see today as Shaker clearly displays the natural beauty of wood, early in the Shaker community’s development, all furniture was required to be painted since wood grain was too ornamental.
This requirement was eventually relaxed, and the paint was stripped off much of the furniture. In order to add style to a piece, without adding ornamentation, highly figured wood was often used. Shaker furniture makes use of different wood species, both for the different properties in the wood, as well as for the aesthetic appeal.
Since it was made exclusively for use in Shaker communities, original pieces are rare and highly sought after. This popularity, and rarity, means that it is copied and produced by modern furniture manufacturers in kit form as well as finished pieces.
1800 – 1860
Key Design Elements
Typical wood types
Maple, Birch, Chestnut, Butternut, Cherry, Birch, Clear Pine, Walnut, Poplar