Rumor has it that with just two fingers you can effortlessly lift an original Shaker chair. Such is the elegant, weightlessness of the design—lightness, utility and beauty intertwined into one. It is the Shakers, who, after all, ostensibly spawned the modern design movement when one of their chair prototypes was spotted by students at a Danish design school in the early 20th century.
And yet 240 years since the Shakers established roots in the U.S., their values of self-sufficiency, craft and optimism resonate more than ever in American design. “There is something incredibly comforting and hopeful about the Shakers,” says Lacy Schutz, executive director of New York’s Shaker Museum, who is overseeing the institution’s move to a new building and renovation by Selldorf Architects. “They modeled a way of life we’re longing for today—gender equality; racial equality; respect for the environment; pride of craft.”
That ethos inspired Berkeley furniture designer Rafi Ajl of The Long Confidence, whose first memory of Shaker design started in Brooklyn with his parents’ ladder back maple dining chairs. “They are these special objects—refined and functional,” he remarks. “I’ve appreciated them more as they’ve aged with grace.” Beauty and timelessness are threaded throughout Ajl’s work, including his thin and strong tapered Spindle Bench and his clean- lined Gathering Chair. “In a throwaway culture, to have things that have provably and measurably endured is highly valuable,” reflects Ajl.
Brian Persico was drawn to the Shakers’ emphasis on sustainability, citing their devotion to growing and harvesting their own materials. For his Windham Chair series, the Catskills-based designer experimented with post-and-rung construction, using local hardwoods he fells and splits along the grain, resulting in a stronger and lighter frame. The seats are woven with hickory bark or rawhide, and the finishing touch is the joinery pins in the chair back, which he carves from white-tailed deer antlers collected on walks. “Materials of the same place have a tendency to go well together,” he says.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the community’s embrace of technology and progressive ideas (think: flattening the round broom)—qualities that attracted Hudson Valley designer Kim Markel. “This combination of ingenuity and resourcefulness is so admirable. It’s about finding solutions in unexpected places,” says Markel, alluding to her dreamlike Glow series, which uses a recycled resin composite that took years to perfect. “The shape is familiar but the material is almost foreign to the matter.” As Schutz explains, a Shaker-influenced furnishing doesn’t have to feel or look like one would expect. “People want something that has meaning and is connected to a set of values,” she says. “It’s a lot more interesting to see how the ethos is manifesting itself in ways that may not be immediately obvious.”