THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SHAKER FURNITURE. By Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks, Abrams, 400 pp., $75
`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....''
In fact, these regulations, which may not have been quite so dictatorial as they sound, were somewhat exceptional in their severity compared with other edicts at other periods in Shaker history. On the other hand, to look at classical Shaker design and even at later design where certain Victorian embellishments or fancies began to find their way in, is to see visually that a kind of plain strictness was always part of the Shaker ethos.
The decorative was always kept in check, however. Above all, there was always a respect for the straightforward use of materials and a recognition of their natural character. Wood, even when it was stained, was often colored so that its grain could show through. And there was no use of elaborate inlay work in the furniture, which was certainly a feature of the ``worldly'' Federal style. Instead, surfaces were plain - as in the ``case of drawers'' shown on page 16, made in about 1840, during the classic period of Shaker design, at Mount Lebanon, N.Y. - almost breathtakingly plain.
The authors of this thoroughly researched study describe how Shaker furniture was instilled with vitality and originality, without disrupting the agreed-upon proprieties, by the fact that no one could be born a Shaker. Celibacy was the rule. Many of the furnituremakers had been apprentices with outside cabinetmakers before joining the church, and often introduced their own ideas. But orphaned children were cared for by the Shakers, and some of these, after choosing to join the community, became furnituremakers, so there was in some cases a handing-down of specific Shaker practices.
In addition, because of some specific needs of the Shaker communities, such as exceptionally large storage cupboards for ``families'' that could be 100 strong, or large dining tables, and various kinds of furniture for certain occupations like clothesmaking, the furnituremakers were called upon to adapt ``worldly'' models to such uses. By and large, it seems that the Shaker furnituremakers really perceived virtue in the necessity of simple, unembellished design. It made them extraordinarily controlled in the only kinds of ``pattern'' or ``decoration'' available to them.
Benjamin Smith's back-to-back sewing desks of 1861 (made for the community at Canterbury, N.H.) are exquisite in their self-discipline, but for a number of noteworthy reasons allow for warm qualities of color, surface, and an almost playful relationship of verticals, horizontals, divisions, and intervals. Such a piece deserves the lengthy discussion given to it in this book. Part of this reads: ``Benjamin Smith's desks contain such features as a small cupboard in the gallery; a shallow drawer at the top, perhaps to hold patterns .... [V]isual tension and excitement is created by the rectangular lines of a case balanced atop very slender, delicately turned legs; [by] the straightforward, direct form covered with a surface of dramatically figures woods; and [by] the syncopated drawer arrangement of the case front.''
Earlier in the book, the authors also refer to the contrast in this marvelous piece between the vertical panels on its sides with the horizontal drawers on its front. There is also something profoundly satisfactory about the placing and sizes of the simple round wooden knobs, which set up their own quiet rhythms.
Yet none of this finesse is excessive. If it is delightful, it is so with serious dignity. More than anything, it is the sense of proportion that predominates in this design. It is far from cold or grim. But it insists on rightness. It is principled furniture. Furniture with morals. It is as if the Shakers, who originated from English stock, had kept alive a folk memory of the Neo-Classicism of 18th-century English furniture. But this refined model had by then long been subjected to the rigorous demands of a pioneering religious conviction bent on a special kind of communal integrity. Theirs was furniture consciously and conscientiously dedicated to the service of God.