THE SHAKERS: A VALUES-LED APPROACH TO DESIGN PART II
There are objects created primarily based on market forces such as cost or seasonal trend cycles. Most of these objects elicit excitement when first purchased but their appeal often dissipates as they fail to perform the task they were intended to due to poor design, poor quality, or the passing of that particular trend.
Then there are those object that somehow capture a timeless quality, weathering passing trends and shifting eras while exuding an appeal that only deepens with the passage of time. These objects are most often well made, deeply functional, and sturdy enough to withstand the passage of time.
Quality and craftsmanship are often distinguishing features between these two types of objects. But truly key elements of creating enduring objects are the amount of care, attention, and time devoted to their creation process by the maker. Some objects are endowed with a quality that is difficult to name that is a kind of deep soulfulness. When objects are made with care and attention from a place of devotion to something beyond late capitalist market forces they become timelessly appealing.
As a way of illustrating how a creation process rooted in care, attention, and our values leads to timeless, soulful designs, I highlighted Shaker communities as an example of this way of making. In part one of this two-part blog post I introduced the Shakers and the beautiful, lasting objects and spaces they brought into being from a place of their deepest values. But to truly appreciate why Shaker creations have captivated people for centuries, we can take a deeper look at the ways in which every aspect of their design and creation process was informed by, and rooted in, their values, their spirituality, and their unique way of life.
An Aesthetic Rooted in Values
The Shakers’ entire aesthetic sensibility was rooted in their values. Every design choice they made for the objects they created served the higher purposes of integrity, utility, and strength. Nothing in their work was done out of vanity and every choice was intentionally made to be the best possible solution that would serve these values.
While the shakers were profoundly non-materialistic, they were also deeply sensitive to their surroundings and strove for grace and harmony in all they created. Labour was a deeply spiritual practice for them, and they viewed every aspect of their creation process as a continuous act of devotion to God. And while their designs were born out of values such as utility and purity, above any individual value was the master driver of the creation process itself as a means of honouring God.
The creation of objects from this deeply spiritual place of devotion, deep care and attention, resulted in a distinct aesthetic defined by tranquillity and order. The stark contrast to the creation process for the majority of objects which are created today, under the master values of profit and speed, provides one frame of reference for the enduring appeal of Shaker creations.
Design Purity Creates Timelessness
The shakers put great care and attention into their designs. They evaluated and re-evaluated their creations with an eye toward continuous refinement. While the Shakers never aimed for beauty for its own sake, the continuous refinement of their creations ultimately resulted in elegant, harmonious pieces that have allowed their designs to endure until today.
The characteristic style of shaker design, unadorned and stripped of frills, focused on strength, integrity, utility, and longevity. Rather than masking their furniture with lacquer or veneer, Shaker design purity exposed the integrity of the raw material they were working with. Their finishes consisted of milk-based paints and faint washes that allowed the wood grain to show through.
Design features that served no purpose or wasted precious materials were considered frivolous and therefore did not feature in Shaker creations. Yet for all their restraint, the objects they crafted had exceptional elegance and were profoundly aesthetically pleasing. They exuded the same deep harmony and order that the Shakers aspired to in all aspects of their lifestyle.
This elegant purity combined with functionality not only continued to inspire individual designers and entire design movements in the years that followed (for example much of the functional simplicity of modern Danish design has its roots in Shaker traditions) but has also cemented the enduring appeal of Shaker furniture.
The quiet simplicity, and deep harmony of Shaker designs allows them to blend in rather than compete with other styles, ensuring that these pieces have continued to find admirers over the centuries and find their way into homes to the present day.
Utility, Craftmanship and Beauty
The simplicity, restraint and functionality of Shaker design has seen it endure maintaining its influence on the wider design community for over 200 years. One of the ultimate achievements of Shaker design was combining exceptional utility with their unique form of aesthetic simplicity that resulted in objects of enduring grace and beauty.
The adage “all beauty that has no foundation in use, soon grows distasteful and needs continuous replacement with something new” credited to Shaker craftsmen, exemplifies their attitude towards the link between functionality and aesthetics. For Shakers utility was one of the main tenants of good design; the aesthetic appeal of any object was inextricably linked to it being deeply functional.
While many have interpreted this adage as indicating that the Shakers believed that beauty would emerge through the perfect execution of utility, a less dualistic take that I believe is more closely rooted in their values is that for Shakers, utility and beauty were inextricably intertwined. It is not that beauty emerges out of utility but rather that when an object or a space perfectly carries out its intended function, there is a deep beauty within this process.
In “The Phenomenon of Life”, architect and theorist Christopher Alexander wrote that “because of our still-prevailing 20th century viewpoint, students are convinced that “beauty” comes about as a result of the concern with practical efficiency. In other words, if you make it practical and efficient, then it will follow that it becomes beautiful. Form follows function!” (p. 423). But using Shaker design as a particularly potent illustration of his point, Alexander argued, that in fact, utility and beauty both emerge as a result of a skilled craftsperson’s focus on the wholeness of what they were creating. This notion is a shift away from binaries that place one value above another in a hierarchy, toward a more holistic way of thinking that focuses on the entirety of the design process.
When discussing one of the classic Shaker designs, the Shaker box, Alexander questions “did this start as a practical idea which then just happened to be beautiful? I do not think so…it started with an instinct for what is beautiful” through the maker concentrating on the wholeness rather than any individual feature (p. 422).
What Alexander is highlighting is the interconnected nature of Shaker design. By using their values as a guide for all that they crafted, focusing on the whole, and with it every element of the creation process, the Shakers did not allow any single value (such as profit) to drive their creation process. The Shakers were free to focus on perfectly executing all of the aspects of their creation process because their labour was first and foremost an act of devotion.
Spirituality and Soul
While many people today still appreciate the quality of Shaker craftsmanship and its aesthetic value, fewer people are familiar with the spirituality out of which it emerged and how deeply intertwined this spirituality is with the Shaker creation process.
The Shakers intentionally lived apart from mainstream society and while they regularly conducted business with the outside world, selling their meticulously crafted objects to admirers from near and far, they expressly attempted to keep their reliance on, and interaction with, the rest of the world to a minimum. This separateness and relative isolation allowed them to cultivate their values and practice a deep commitment to their spirituality, living simply without vanity or greed.
Living separately from mainstream society offered Shaker communities the breathing space needed for their own values and beliefs to flourish and be expressed in everything that they did. Shaker societies strove to glorify God with every act of daily life and they strove to attain perfection in these acts as a sign of their devotion. This was expressed first and foremost through their labour, whether that was growing herbs, sweeping, or crafting their famous ladder-back chairs. The Shakers considered all labour to be an act of worship and treated every act as if it was an expression of their devotion and a contribution to creating the heaven on earth they longed for. Above all else, their graceful creations were the manifestation of their religious experience and their belief system.
The objects they created were not subservient to capitalist market forces, with its greed for increasing profit and production speed. Nor was their production and creation process driven by ego or the desire for status, fame, or prestige. Instead, the Shakers created from a place of service to something beyond themselves. Freed from the tyranny of market pressure and the self-serving drives of the ego, Shaker craftsmen poured their soul into perfecting the qualities of mindful labour, meticulous design, and skilful execution as an expression of their devotion to something beyond themselves.
In ‘The Timeless way of Building’, Christopher Alexander wrote that “we have a habit of thinking that the deepest insights, the most mystical, and spiritual insights, are somehow less ordinary than most things – that they are extraordinary…In fact, the opposite is true: the most mystical, most religious, most wonderful – these are not less ordinary than most things – they are more ordinary than most things. It is because they are so ordinary, indeed, that they strike to the core” (p.219).
Alexander’s point is deeply relevant to the creations and designs of the Shakers. Freed from the tyranny of market forces, their value-led design and production processes allowed them to create from a deeply spiritual place. Their objects became enduringly beautiful by merging simplicity with functionality to create something seemingly ordinary yet gracefully striking and deeply practical. Their designs have endured precisely because of the “ordinariness that strikes right to the core” (Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building).
The beliefs and values that drive Ellei Home are also based on the beauty of simplicity, the value in craftsmanship, and the preference for a soulful, enduring aesthetic over passing trends. These ideals align well with the Shaker sensibility which is why I was drawn to design elements that have their heritage in Shaker design long before I knew the details of the the values that led to their creation.
For me, Shaker creations demonstrate that what has the power to endure is all that is created with love, care, and intention. So much of what is made today is driven entirely by profit. This focus strips an object of its soul. The reason that Shaker designs were so lastingly impactful is that they were created from a place of intention to honour a set of values that were larger than the individual makers, connecting them, and those of us who still admire these designs today, to something far greater than just ourselves.
Images above show our Belgian Linen Bedding in Pure White, Handwoven Merino Wool Blanket in Natural, Belgian Linen Fitted Sheets in Pure White, Handspun Cotton Cushion Covers in Ecru, Handwoven Cotton Cushion Covers in Traditional Stripes, Hand Forged Copper Stacking Cups, Shuro Palm Hand Broom, Vintage Framed Watercolour Painting.