The Shaker legacy

While only two Shakers remain today (both reside in the community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine), interest in the history, culture, and design of the Shakers continues, with several Shaker communities preserved as historic sites and open to the public, including Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon, in New Lebanon, New York; Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire; and Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

The Shaker legacy has lived on, not only through the collection and preservation of original artifacts, but in art, music, literature, architecture, dance, and theatre. Perhaps most famous is Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. The composition is a score to a 1944 ballet written for Martha Graham, which incorporates the iconic Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts. Several decades later, the American composer John Adams wrote his 1978 composition Shaker Loops, a 24-minute score for strings characterized by patterns of melodic circles and waves. The piece was partly inspired by Shaker music and dance, with which Adams was familiar from having grown up near the Shaker community at Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Furniture designers of the last century have often turned to the Shakers for inspiration. Notable figures such as Gustav Stickley, Charles Eames, George Nakashima, and several Danish modernists, including Kaare Klint, Borge Mogensen, and Hans Wegner were influenced by the simplicity, clean lines, and functionality of Shaker furniture. Many important artists of the 20th century—including Ellsworth Kelley, Jasper Johns, Kenneth Noland, and Charles Sheeler—were collectors of Shaker artifacts and found influence in their own art.

Shaker Peg Rail, image via Mjölk

Shaker Peg Rail, image via Mjölk

Furnishing Utopia , 2016, image via The Shaker Design Project

Furnishing Utopia, 2016, image via The Shaker Design Project

Shaker design, with its elegant simplicity and functionality, has continued to be popular since its origin, with a resurgence in the 1930s and again in the 70s and 80s. In the past few years, Shaker and Shaker-inspired designs have once again returned. In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized the Simple Gifts exhibition, with original Shaker artifacts displayed alongside works of modern art and design influenced by the Shakers. Additionally, the Loyola University Museum of Art, Farnsworth Museum, and New Britain Museum of American Art have all mounted exhibitions on the Shakers in the past several years. In 2017, design studio Mjölk in Toronto showcased original Shaker pieces alongside contemporary works by Canadian and Scandinavian designers. In 2016, Furnishing Utopia (part of the NYCxDesign Festival) paired original Shaker artifacts with contemporary pieces of furniture, furnishings, tools, and decorative items inspired by Shaker design. The Shaker Design Project has continued the show annually in association with Hancock Shaker Village and Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum.

This latest resurgence is not just in collecting and exhibitions however—many design publications have recently pointed to Shaker furniture and design styles as a current trend in interior decorating. Remodelista has named Shaker style one of their “trends to watch” for 2018 and frequently espouses the peg rail’s aesthetic and practical uses (even featuring them on the cover of their 2017 book, The Organized Home). They join decorating and design publications including: Apartment Therapy, Martha Stewart, A Beautiful Mess, Houzz, and Ideal Home, who have all run articles in the past few years advocating for the use of Shaker peg rails.