Unarguably, Shaker furniture has influenced modern design. Many decades before phrases such as Sullivan’s “form follows function,” Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more,” and Wright’s “nature of the materials” became modern design mantras, the Shakers were creating chairs that were functional and unadorned while displaying integrity and honesty of construction. In contrast to the pioneers of modernism, the Shakers were motivated by religious beliefs—“hands to work and hearts to God”—and achieved beauty through a sense of balance, preciseness, and strength that, in turn, produced furniture that was simple, well-crafted, and durable. Inherent to the Shaker religion is a passion for perfection. Shaker craftsmen were perfectionists, and when making chairs, they took their time and focused on the details. Originally, they made chairs to meet their domestic needs. However, as early as 1789, they began making chairs to sell commercially. Interest in Shaker furniture increased rapidly; as a result, they introduced new technology to meet this demand and, in 1874, published their first design catalogs.
Soaring at 51” high, the Elder’s chair pictured here is a reproduction of a five-slat-back arm chair with a tape seat. None of the catalogs included a model this tall, which is almost 9 inches higher than the largest chair commercially available at the time. Most people will agree that in addition to size, the mushroom caps above the arms and the elongated finial at the tip of each of the back posts are some of this chair’s most distinguishing details. So why did the Shakers produce this type of chair? These exceptionally tall chairs were originally made to recognize elders for their service to the community and to validate their leadership roles. In a very interesting way, the majesty, scale, and significance of these chairs parallel the authority of Saint Peter’s throne. While the making of both objects was motivated by spiritual beliefs, each reveals a distinct set of aesthetic rules that is representative of its makers’ inherent religious values. On the one hand, the throne of Saint Peter displays lavish and excessive baroque decoration designed to honor God; on the other hand, the lack of decoration exhibited by the Shakers’ chair is also intended for the glory of God. The Shakers think of ornamentation as a sin. In my opinion, this is similar to Adolf Loos’s ideas expressed in his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime.” Loos, like the Shaker craftsmen, favored this lack of ornamentation and preferred forms that were simple and unadorned. In fact, Loos felt that the use of ornament was degenerate and labeled it a crime. In the same manner, for the Shakers, the use of ornamentation is seen as a sinful act.
This general lack of ornamentation has carried into modern times, with the excess of baroque design now often considered garish. The postmodernism of the 1980s, exemplified by Robert Venturi, attempted to reincorporate surface ornamentation in architecture as well as furniture design. Curiously, furniture pieces from this decade had a short-lived popularity and are no longer in production. I am convinced that today’s designers share an aesthetic vision similar to the Shakers’. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that 21st-century designers will question these ideas and develop a new set of aesthetic rules that will redefine ornament. Questions remain: Is ornament a sin or a virtue? Does its presence add to or subtract from an object’s inherent grace and usefulness? What do you think?
If you are interested in learning more about modern furniture design, the Berniece Bienenstock Furniture Library and the Salem College Chair Library are perfect places to start. We welcome students and design professionals to investigate these libraries and perhaps be inspired in their own designs.