THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SHAKER FURNITURE. By Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks, Abrams, 400 pp., $75Skip to next paragraph
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`I WOULD like to be remembered,'' Sister Mildred Barker said in a 1974 interview, ``as one who had pledged myself to the service of God and had fulfilled that pledge as perfectly as I can.'' Then this believer from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, delivered her crisp punch line. She would not, she added, like to be remembered ``as a piece of furniture.''
Her remark points to the tendency of today's secular society to think of the Shakers above all as fine designers and makers of anything from baskets and oval-shaped boxes to chairs, tables, and built-in cupboards, all of which feature unembellished sensibleness and elegantly useful proportion. The Shakers did make these things, but only because of their primary ``pledge to the service of God.''
The design of Shaker furniture was certainly given solemn attention, not only by the craftsmen, but also by the higher echelons of the Shaker community. They gave serious consideration to new designs, basing decisions on the conviction that ``vainglory or anything superfluous'' were to be avoided. Decorative details were kept to a minimum. The point was that things spiritual were of much higher importance than things ``temporal,'' but that even things temporal should conform to higher ideals. The Shakers had a strong sense of uniformity and suitability in everyday matters. This sometimes extended down to the most particular details, such as varnish on furniture.
Manuscript writings dating from 1790 present such precepts as: ``Plainness and simplicity in both word and deed is becoming [to] the Church and the people of God. Order and conveniency and decency in things temporal.'' And long before the ``form-follows-function'' design ideas of the 20th century were propounded, the Shaker religious communities in the United States were emphasizing ``use'' as a criterion for the design of ``all things.''
The restraint and moderation of most Shaker furniture appeals in our century both to modernists with a feeling for the essential potency of the most minimal geometry and subtly calculated balance, and to traditionalists. The latter find in a Shaker rocking chair or sewing desk an irresistible lack of pretension and a disdain for excess that appears to belong to simpler times.
It is intriguing to learn from the recently published ``The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture'' that the Shakers themselves were intent on not just preserving old styles and practices against the passage of time and change, but were aware of ``worldly'' fashions and willing to make them - to a degree - their own. Not at all like the Amish with respect to modern inventions, they were keen to use advancing technology. They mass-produced chairs, for example, with the aid of steam-driven machinery. But there was, apparently, an effective tension between the tried-and-true, on the one hand, and the need to be part of the present on the other.
For example, in spite of an 1845 dictate against the use of varnish on nonmoveable furniture (and the Shakers, living communally in large ``families,'' often made large items of furniture a fixed part of their interiors), there was a sufficiently vigorous determination to change with the times that an agreement was made to disregard that prohibition. But when varnish, in the latter 19th century, started to be used extensively, one conservative brother observed: ``There is a great proclivity in this, our day, for fixing up matters very nice, & the varnish has to go on to the cupboards, drawers &c & the paint onto floors, everything has to be so slick, that a fly will slip on it!''
The authors of this fine book, Timothy Rieman and Jean Burks, point out that too often today the ``Millennial Laws'' of 1845 are quoted as the only definitive text on Shaker attitudes toward design. Not only is the restriction on the uses of varnish stated therein, but alsoquite a number of other directives against such things as beadings, moldings, cornices, brass knobs or handles, not to mention ``superfluously finished or flowery painted clocks, bureaus and looking glasses....''