Shaker Furniture and Early American Design Style

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Shaker Furniture and Early American Design Style

Category : Interior Design

It is easy to see why the American shaker furniture and design style is currently undergoing a revival. The clean lines, the honest use of natural materials, the lack of ornaments – all are values much appreciated in today’s world. Many of us have realized that the ostentation of past decades serves only to crowd and complicate our already busy lives and we now hanker after a purer, plainer backdrop to our daily activities. Amazingly, while over-the-top, cluttered Victorian style was at its most popular in England, Shaker furniture and design style in all its simplicity was thriving simultaneously a mere few thousand miles away.

The Shaker furniture and style movement was introduced into America by an English woman, Ann Lee, who gathered together like minded people who could not find an home for their beliefs within the Quaker community in Europe. They set off for the New World in the latter part of the eighteenth century, searching for an environment where they could practice communal life based upon humility, simplicity and, above all, honesty in everything. Initially they settled in New England but, as the number of followers increased, they gradually moved further west, establishing communities as they went. Despite the vast distances between settlements, all exhibited a remarkable uniformity of lifestyle and the movement does not appear to have suffered from dilution as it spread. The shaker furniture and design style is therefore easily identified and interpreted.

Despite the restrictions imposed by the unavailability of certain materials locally and by the lack of funds, Shaker furniture and buildings were, though humble, always elegant, exquisitely designed and beautifully crafted. Shaker furniture was made of the finest timber and was worked by the most skilled of craftsmen. Quality and simplicity were their bywords and wood (principally from the maple tree) the material most easily accessed.

In order to adopt the classic rural shaker style furniture today, a total rethink of decorating approach is necessary. Any indulgence in embellishment for its own sake should be resisted. All thoughts of ornamentation and pattern need to be restrained and any items which are considered solely for their decorative qualities discarded in favor of more functional pieces.

The quotation ‘Beauty rests with utility’ sums up the Shaker style approach. For the Shakers a sense of order was paramount. Everything had its purpose and everything its place. Storage was therefore a specialty. Much of this was built in and what loose items remained in a room (chairs, baskets, shoes and so on) were hung tidily on peg rails which ran around the circumference of nearly every room at approximately picture rail height. These timber rails would be built into the wall, their surface lying flush with the surface of the plaster, and wooden pegs would be fixed at intervals of approximately 20-30cm/8-12in.

The reliance on wood for shaker furniture and as a building and furnishing material was almost total. In most cases it was left unadorned, but on occasions when it was painted this was more likely to be done with a type of wash rather than with opaque color, so that the wood grain could still show through – demonstrating, yet again, honesty in all things.


Walls were most often plain painted, underscoring the austerity of the look especially in shaker kitchens. Soft white was perhaps the most typical non-color seen in interiors, but other pastels were also called upon. Woodwork – window frames and shutters, skirting/base boards, doors, shaker kitchen cabinets, peg rails and sometimes dados – were usually bereft of anything but the simplest of moldings and might have been painted in a darker shade of the wall color. Cornices were rarely a feature of the Shaker style home. The most usual flooring to be seen was simply treated wood planking, sometimes covered with home-made rag rugs.

Shaker Furniture

Because of the lack of diverting decorations on walls and floors in the American Shaker home, great reliance for interest was placed upon beautifully crafted pieces of painted shaker furniture. In nearly every case, shaker furniture was both delicate and, at the same time, extremely strong. Many designs were based upon items of concrete outdoor furniture brought with the members from the Old World – the ladder-back chair, with either a cane or fabric tape seat and sometimes on rockers, epitomizes the style.
Fitted storage units were also a feature of Shaker kitchens and interiors and, once again, these were efficiently designed and made to exacting standards. Soft furnishings did not play a large part in the decoration of homes, comfort not being high on the agenda. At windows, in preference to curtains, shutters would most often be used to provide privacy and to shut out exterior elements.

Lighting And Accessories

In line with Shakers’ beliefs, few accessories would have adorned their homes. The exception might have been simple wooden boxes, most likely round or oval in shape, left plain and seen stacked one upon another. Baskets lined with fabric and other purposeful items might also have been displayed. The main source of artificial light was candles. These would be placed in simple candle sticks of wood or metal. Bent and pierced tinware was a popular material and was used to make lanterns and different styles of candle holders. Ironware also featured in the Shaker style home – items such as hooks, coat hangers, rails and similar shaker furniture  were made of this material and would frequently incorporate a heart-shaped motif.

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