Shaker furniture first caught my attention about 35 years ago with the publication of Thomas Mosers “How To Build Shaker Furniture.” I built a few items from that book for my own use. Since then I have accumulated perhaps two dozen books on Shaker furniture. Not all of the items depicted are good, but many are outstanding and have taught me much about the essential elements of furniture design. Shaker furniture is helpful in learning about design because it usually leans heavily toward the basics and gives us an important window into proportions, lines, etc. without obscuring those features with much ornament. There are no issues to be had with ornament (used appropriately) as such; its just that its absence in Shaker furniture helps the eye to see and comprehend the essentials more clearly.
I’ve kept a woodworking journal for many years, sometimes recording useful quotes, other times observations on how to design and build furniture – some my own, some from others. Recently I decided it would be good to collect and organize some of my (and others) observations about Shaker furniture. Here are some things that emerged that I think will be useful for good design (whether in the Shaker style, or otherwise.)
The Shakers approached their work from a certain vantage point that strongly influenced their work:
- They had a certain attentiveness to the world and themselves
- They had a desire to create beautiful things that somehow reflected the goodness and potential of creation around them
- They had a respect for the inherent limits of the materials they used
- They desired to bring order out of disorder
- They focused on using quality, mostly local, materials
- Each craftsman gave the work their own best effort (some with very high levels of craftsmanship, some much less so, but still their personal best.)
The Shakers had a strong leaning toward functionality and while they did not turn aside from artistic expression, they tended to express it directly through function:
- Honest functionality and utility were high on their priority list
- They were not afraid of creating unusual pieces in the pursuit of functionality
The Shakers usually stuck with basic shapes:
- They relied almost wholly on good proportions and harmony
- They almost always created pieces with clean, simple but still elegant lines
- They relied heavily on “unadorned” forms
- They maintained geometric simplicity by using proportions related by small whole number ratios
The Shakers were careful about the details:
- They kept their forms unadorned, simple, and stripped of vanity and excess
- They removed “unnecessary” stuff and non-supporting centers (areas that essentially “did nothing”)
- They used ornament with great restraint keeping their work calm, always excluding trivia
- They added ornament only to highlight or create a foil for extreme simplicity
- They cared a lot about color (either through the species of wood or by working the colors into the wood in ways that didn’t detract from the grain and texture)
- They were very careful in shaping each part making it comfortable to the eye, comfortable to the hand, often using very slender or light features
- They focused on details that would delight an attentive eye
The end result was predictable:
- Their furniture was fully functional, always fulfilling its intended purpose.
- Their work had (in Christopher Alexander’s words) “Simplicity and Inner Calm”
- There was a wholeness, unity, and completeness in their work
- There was a slowness, stillness, and quietness that gave their work an unexpected majesty.
The Shakers understood the essentials very well. Those same essentials are important to all furniture design whether Shaker in style or not. It is important to get the essentials correct; once that is done, additional work can be done to fully develop a piece in ways that are fresh and new without sacrificing functionality or by adding so much detail that the essentials become lost.