Shaker design: worship in workmanship

GOOD workmanship was a kind of holiness for members of the Shaker religious movement, which flowered in the 19th-century United States. ``Shaker Design,'' an exhibition now at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, expresses the beauty inherent in simple functionalism. The more than 100 fine examples of furniture, household items, tools, textiles, and graphic designs gathered here from over 40 collections reveal much about Shaker art and life.

And the exhibition comes at a time when Shaker furnishings are becoming increasingly rare (see accompanying story, Page 26), as the Shaker movement dwindles toward extinction.

Founded in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee, who came to America from Manchester, England, the United Society of Believers (or Shakers, as they were later called because of their dance of worship) had between 400,000 and 600,000 members living in 18 principal communities from Maine to Kentucky by the year 1840.

They led a communal and celibate life centered around work and prayer. Mother Ann, who died in 1784, was concerned with the eternal life of the soul, not with the ephemeral things of the earth. Still, Shakers believed that the work of the hands had to reflect a moral order, and that the outward appearance of things revealed the inner spirit.

Simplicity, says June Sprigg, guest curator of the exhibition, was the hallmark of the Shakers. ``They cared little for worldly goods. Their environment and what was in it was unadorned, functional, and well made. They believed that home was the nearest equivalent to heaven on earth, that beauty rested on utility, and that spaciousness and light streaming through many windows were divine ideals. They stayed at home, worked quietly, and gave a part of each day to meditation. Communal life provided uniform clothing, meals, a daily routine, and job assignments. It also freed them from financial worries.''

Miss Sprigg, who has done scholarly research on the sect for 15 years, says their designs are distinguished by a keen sense of form, color, and purity of line, but also by a ``subtle beauty that relies almost wholly on proportion. There is harmony in all the parts of a Shaker object.''

A spiritual foundation, she adds, based their Shaker sense of thrift, order, cleanliness, invention, and self-sufficiency. ``They were successful in making their heavenly ideals a working part of their everyday life and work, and this is evident in all the things they made.''

Looking at Shaker objects in this light, it is clear that, as Mother Ann instructed, ``whenever they put their hands to work, they also put their hearts to God.''

Using local woods -- cherry, walnut, maple, and pine -- Shaker carpenters fashioned trestle tables, chairs, clocks, desks, sewing tables, cupboards, chests of drawers, and stands. Order was an important concept in Shaker communal life. ``Go home and take care of what you have,'' Mother Ann had said. ``Provide places for all your things, so that you may know where to find them at any time, day or night.''

Although the Shakers did not originate the idea of built-in cupboards and drawers, they did recognize their advantages and carried the idea to a logical, elegant conclusion.

The Shakers also produced baskets and boxes in quantity, both for members of the communities and for sale to outsiders.

The manufacturing of textiles is represented at the exhibition by spinning wheels, yarn winders, looms, spool racks, mitten forms, and clothes hangers. Cloaks and hats are also displayed, along with rag rugs, samplers, drawings, and watercolors.

The period of greatest Shaker achievement was between 1820 and 1850. Their decline has been steady for many decades. Today, fewer than a dozen Shakers remain and these live in two communities, Canterbury, N.H., and Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Increasing general as well as scholarly interest is bringing the sect and its cultural contribution into sharper focus. ``It is a poignant fact,'' says Miss Sprigg, ``that this longest-living religious and social experiment is now coming to an end. Many younger scholars are now studying it intensely and its meaning and legacy will become even clearer in years to come.''

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney Museum in 1930, and the artists who surrounded her were among the first to recognize the aesthetic quality of objects made by the Shakers, according to museum director Tom Armstrong. Shaker design, he points out, presaged much modern design.

The exhibition will be at the Whitney through Aug. 31, and will later be shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington from Sept. 27, 1986 through Jan. 4, 1987. It was organized with a grant from United Technologies Corporation.

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