Wedge post bed, late 19th century. Pleasant Hill, KY. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Collection.
Meeting room, Hancock Shaker Village, MA. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Collection.
Full wall built-in, ca. 1813. Courtesy of the Museum at Lower Shaker Village, Enfield, NH, and the New York Public Library Collection.
Shaker furniture. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library Collection.
Armed rocker, 1880–1920. Mount Lebanon, NY. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Collection.
Trestle table with drawer, 1850. Courtesy of the Fruitlands Museum Harvard, MA, and the New York Public Library Collection.

Simple Economy: A History of Shaker Design

by Alice Rawsthorn

Whenever the architect Kaare Klint needed to show his students at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts an example of “good design,” he referenced a wooden rocking chair that had arrived from the US in 1927. Klint was so impressed by its formal simplicity and fine craftsmanship that he commissioned a scale replica of it.

Years later, Klint discovered that his favorite teaching aid was one of the No. 7 chairs made—together with other household objects designed in the same uncompromisingly utilitarian style—by the Shakers, a radical religious sect. Klint sought to replicate the Shakers’ design values of honesty, usefulness, and economy in his own work and urged his students to follow suit. By doing so, he ensured that Shaker design was an important influence on not only his students such as Arne Jacobsen and Poul Kjærholm—who went on to become leaders of Denmark’s mid-century modernist movement—but also future generations of designers worldwide.

Design was central to the Shaker way of life, who settled in the US in the late 18th century after fleeing religious persecution in England. Founded by factory workers in northern England in 1747 as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the movement was nicknamed the “Shaking Quakers” because of the way its members’ arms and legs shook during religious worship. It was soon assailed by angry mobs and the authorities as a hotbed of radicalism and subversion. In 1774, the Shakers’ leader, Mother Ann Lee, sailed to the US with eight followers, claiming she had been told to do so in a vision. After traveling around the East Coast seeking converts, they built farming communities in Kentucky, Maine, Ohio,and Pennsylvania, where they lived according to their core principles of pacifism, gender equality, celibacy, and consensus.

Careful design ensured that every physical aspect of Shaker communities—including the buildings, tools, and furniture—reflected their cherished qualities of modesty, purity, and simplicity. To that end, they designed everything to be made as economically as possible. Anything superfluous, such as decoration, was avoided, and standardized shapes were used—mostly squares and circles. The Shakers’ paths were always straight, and their dances were conducted in what was called the “square order.” Even their food was cut “square and equal.”

“Make every product better than it’s ever been done before,” was the starting point of the Shakers’ design philosophy, defined in their Millennial Laws of 1821 and 1845. “Make the parts you cannot see as well as the parts you can see. Use only the best materials, even for the most everyday items. Give the same attention to the smallest detail as you do to the largest.” These rules imbued Shaker products with the grace, purity, and discipline that made them visually appealing, efficient, and enduring.

Yet the Shakers also deployed design as a defensive device to help them to become self-sufficient. As well as earning money from the sale of their meticulously made wooden furniture and boxes, they designed much of the equipment they needed for farming, manufacturing, and domestic life. Their innovations included circular saws, flat brooms, false teeth, fire engines, and the famous wooden Shaker pegs. By minimizing their dependence on outsiders they hoped to enable their movement to thrive and prevent a repetition of the oppression that had driven them into exile.

This strategy worked for many years and by the mid-19th century there were nearly twenty Shaker villages in the US. The movement then declined, not least because of the constraints imposed by its adherence to celibacy. One by one the communities closed, leaving Sabbathday Lake in Maine as the sole survivor. Yet the Shakers’ design legacy has flourished. The championship of Klint, Jacobsen, and other influential modernists helped immensely, as has that of contemporary designers. Equally useful has been the durability of the Shakers’ work, thanks to their final rule: “Design every item you make to last forever.”

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. The author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton and Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, she is a co-founder of the Design Emergency platform to investigate design’s role in building a better future.