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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.