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Shaker Style

Shaker Style (1840 - 1900)

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Shakers have become famous for the simplicity and beauty of their architecture and craftsmanship.

Shakers believed that they served God by approaching every task with care. This care resulted in a distinctive Shaker style of architecture, furniture and shaker chairdecorative arts characterized by traditional Shaker values of simplicity, utility and fine craftsmanship.

The Shaker sense of order and neatness is reflected in the clean lines and lack of ornamentation of their designs.
Shakers were pioneers of the principles of form and function advocated later by architects and designers such as John Ruskin and Louis Sullivan.

In the late 19th century, the Shakers began mass-producing their ladder-back chair at Mount Lebanon.
This chair was based on a common New England form, but refined by the Shakers to create a lighter, more comfortable version with simple finials.

The Mount Lebanon ladder-back chair received a medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition for combining "strength, sprightliness, and modest beauty." This chair became so popular that the Shakers acquired a US Patent for their design to ensure continued profits from their production: affixing small, gold decals as trademarks to these chairs.

They also obtained a patent for a wooden ball-and-socket chair-tilter - the precursor for that found in all types of chairs today.

The Shaker's invention of the circular saw in 1810 transformed the production of furniture throughout the world, and their simple, function design influenced not only American furniture makers, but Japanese and European designs as well. Today, these antiques are revered and widely sought after, as well as copied by modern furniture manufacturers.

Shaker furniture and handcrafts were also influenced by the concepts of order, utility and durability.
As with their architecture, the discarding of any unnecessary ornament resulted in distinctive furniture of simple forms and proportion, often colored with a thin Venetian red or yellow ochre wash.

Craftsman did choose some of their most beautiful woods for their furniture such as maple, birch, chestnut, butternut and honey pine.

Early Shaker furniture was based on rural English examples.
By 1820, the second generation of Shakers unencumbered by other "worldly" influences, was creating pieces considered classic Shaker style: essential forms with clean lines, free of unnecessary detailing.

After the Civil War, as Shaker communities were declining, popular Victorian tastes did seep into the designs of some Shaker craftsman as well. It is the classic style that most closely

shaker furniturereflects Shaker ideals and dates to the society's most prosperous and creative years. Shakers made all of their own furnishings including chairs, cupboards, tables, beds, desks, bookcases, washstands, trunks, benches, clocks, stools, foot warmers, sewing boxes, brushes, brooms: a nearly endless variety of items crafted with simple elegance.

Shaker buildings were void of fanciful architectural details as Millennial Law restricted the use of decorative "beadings, moulding and cornices." Elements such as door and window frames, lintels and chimneys, stairways and hardware were all executed with clean lines in the most basic forms.

The design solutions for individual Shaker buildings were often devised in response to the demands of communal living.

Buildings that were used by both men and women, such as meetinghouses and dwellings, incorporated separate entrances and stairways as their beliefs dictated the separation of the sexes.

The interior space of Shaker meetinghouses had to include large, uninterrupted floor space to allow for their religious dances--requiring a huge truss to support the roof. At Mount Lebanon, an ingenious arched roof, or "rainbow roof," was designed for their meetinghouse.

Dwellings included communal rooms on the ground floor but carefully segregated bedrooms on the floors above. These large dwellings also necessitated the introduction of interior windows to bring natural light into dark interior rooms.

Wood peg rails were a feature of many rooms, built on all four walls for hanging garments, chairs, hats or baskets. One visually dominant building in every family complex was the barn--huge buildings that reflected the importance of agriculture to the Shaker economy.

Barns were often built into hillsides, allowing ground-floor access on multiple levels, with hay and grain stored on upper levels and cattle below. Many of the other daily activities took place in large wooden buildings similar in size and form to the dwellings.

The Simplicity of Shaker Decorating Style
When decorating a single room or an entire home in the Shaker style, simplicity and orderliness are two of the most important features to incorporate. The Shakers were famous for their beautifully crafted and yet simplistic furniture pieces.

In a Shaker-styled home, everything has a proper place and function, reflecting the orderliness of the Shaker lifestyle. However, the Shakers did not look at this as a style of decorating. Instead, what we know today as the Shaker "style" was actually an expression of their religious beliefs and how they lived their everyday lives. In today's decorating styles, Shaker furniture pieces can be combined with an overall Shaker style of room decor, or it can be combined with other styles of decorating to add a simple, functional and yet stylish look.

Shaker Cabinet Styles
Beautifully simple cabinets are one of the hallmarks of the Shaker style of decorating. Traditionally, these cabinets are crafted without the use of nails or glue. The finely crafted dovetailed joints hold the corners of the cabinets in a sturdy and yet flexible fashion.

Shaker cabinetry often features many built-in or custom features, providing efficient use of space. There are often multiple shelves and drawers that are perfectly suited to the items that are to be stored. Ornamentation of any kind is extremely rare in Shaker cabinetry, since the focus is on functionality, not beauty. You'll usually find simple hardware and plain fronts, although the cabinets are definitely beautiful in their simplicity and craftsmanship.

Shaker Decorating Accents
Although the Shakers didn't originally think in terms of decorating, some of the functional elements that they customarily added to their homes are used today as decorating accents. For example, Shaker-style peg racks are often used to add a functional and even decorative look in today's homes. In the Shaker way of life, an item's usefulness and functionality was the primary concern.

When they made furniture pieces, cabinets, pegs or other items for their homes, they focused on paring away all the decorative and non-functional details to get to the basic simplicity of the item. As such, there really isn't a true Shaker style of decorating, because traditionally, a lack of decoration was the true Shaker style.

However, in today's world, this streamlined and simplistic approach is often added to other styles of decorating to add a functional and even beautiful touch. The Shaker style works well with almost any minimalist style of decorating. It can also work well with many modern styles of decorating. Its simple lines and lack of detail can provide a nice backdrop to sleek contemporary designs.

Effective use of space is also something that is quite apparent in Shaker-style rooms. Traditionally, Shakers lived a communal lifestyle, which meant that any kind of clutter or inefficient use of space would have been a hindrance. Everything was designed to have a specific storage area, and homes were maintained with a minimum of clutter and mess. This style of decorating can provide a restful and peaceful backdrop for today's busy and hectic lifestyle. The overall look is plain and simplistic. However, its overall simplicity is probably the source of its greatest charm and appeal.

Alyssa Davis is the top writer and creative design specialist for She specializes in designing with turtle wall sculptures and metal Western wall art.

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