Shaker Furniture: Purist Design From America

Furniture bicentennial Shaker style, even today, looks anything but old. On the contrary, when we focus more on the essentials and minimalism conquers our homes, simple and refined craftsmanship inspires many designers. Discover where the style comes from, what makes it, and what furniture and accessories are typical of it.

Modern interpretation: The iconic Sprout chairs bring Shaker style into today
Modern interpretation: The iconic Sprout chairs bring Shaker style into today.

Where Does the Term Shaker Come From?

The Shakers were a free church denomination that followed the teachings of the prophetess Ann Lee. Originally from England, members settled on the American East Coast in the 18th century. Their name derives from a ritual shaking dance to worship God and their origins in Quakerism.

While their actual name was “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” the term “shaking Quaker” became common worldwide. The Puritan community was characterized by a nearly self-sufficient, ascetic, and celibate life and maintained an effortless lifestyle characterized by honesty, order, cleanliness, modesty, and a high work ethic. As a largely self-sufficient community, the Shakers grew their food and met all their needs through manufacturing and long-lasting production.

The devout Shakers rejected the idea of lavish living and found that all things should be practical, functional, and honest. Their private property included only the most necessary furniture, crockery, or household utensils. Over time, carpentry and furniture making evolved from the original personal use to the main source of income for the religious community.

Today, only one known Shaker community remains in the area surrounding Sabbathday Lake in the state of Maine in the United States. However, their simple style lives on in many modern furniture designs.

Traditional and modern at the same time: the Shaker kitchen
Traditional and modern at the same time: the Shaker kitchen. Photo:
Shaker-style filigree chairs bring modern design to your dining room
Shaker-style filigree chairs bring modern design to your dining room. Photo:

What Distinguishes the Shaker Style?

Starting from their values, the Shakers created a style that fully corresponded to their modest lifestyle. One looked in vain for flourishes, ornaments, and decorations on their simple and purely functional furniture and utensils; sobriety and a minimalist design were the order of the day. Despite the deliberate abandonment of decorative elements such as carvings or inlays, the artistry of the cabinets lies in their very own charm. The forms are simple and follow functionality. Buildings and furniture were also designed for a specific task or purpose; each piece considers strict symmetry.

The main characteristic of the Shaker style to this day is the excellent artistry, clean lines of wooden furniture, shapes reduced to the essentials, harmonious proportions, and the use of natural materials such as solid wood in manufacturing. Unlike the Amish, the Shakers embraced craft technologies to increase efficiency and save time that, according to their beliefs, should belong to God. Thus, the Shakers were among the first manufacturers in America to experiment with mass furniture production.

The minimalist interior style is a real eye-catcher, especially in the dining room
The minimalist interior style is a real eye-catcher, especially in the dining room.

What Is Shaker Furniture?

The ethical beliefs of the Shakers were reflected in their minimalist designed furniture made of wood. Shaker style is simple, practical, and uniform, so its understated aesthetic fits various interior styles. In origin, all furniture, utensils, and accessories were handmade and custom-made for personal use. Less familiar to us, the timeless Shaker style is one of the best-known and most popular interior design styles in the United States of America.

Typical Shaker furniture can be recognized by its round wooden knobs, tapered legs, and subtle curves. These features give chairs, tables, dressers, and cabinets their traditional, refined look. The focus is always on practicality, but the longevity of solid craftsmanship also plays an overriding role. Although maple, pine, and walnut were the wood for most furniture, many modern versions also use pine, maple, cherry, and other American woods.

Characteristics of the Shaker style were, for example, circumferential hook rails with turned wall hooks spaced at six-centimeter intervals, which were painted in color or left in the natural wood tone. The so-called “shaker rail”, also called “peg rail”, was a simple but ingenious means of organizing the household. Present in almost every room, it was used to simply hang everything neatly: from clothes to brooms to chairs that needed to be moved out of the way while cleaning. The Shaker ledge is a perfect example of the Shakers’ excessive pursuit of order and harmony in the home and their preference for repetition, symmetry, and sameness.

Also classic is the ultra-light rung chair with a narrow frame, a wicker seat, and stabilizing struts between the chair legs. The flyweight among the seats was particularly easy to move around or just hang on the hook bar for cleaning.

A famous representative of Shaker furniture is also the so-called “Salem Rocker”, one of the first rocking chairs in design history. The seat and backrest, covered with a woven cotton ribbon fixed on two skids, made it an extremely light and comfortable seat.

The typical Shaker table was long, intended primarily to allow communal meals and facilitate their way of life. To move the large solid wood furniture, the Shakers provided rigidly attached casters that could only be moved in one direction. Slim legs that tapered downward helped reduce the weight of the tables.

Accessories were not left out either. Oval chipboard boxes of various sizes were typical. They served to store small items, such as jewelry, valuables, sewing utensils, or documents.

You can easily hang useful items on the shaker bar
You can easily hang useful items on the shaker bar.
Photo: Jotex

On Trend: The Shaker Kitchen

Excellent quality, clear shapes, strict lines, and the absence of anything superfluous: the traditional appeal of the Shaker style from the 19th century, with its purposeful design, today gives a modern twist to country kitchens. They are immediately recognizable by their fronts because Shaker-style kitchens do not have smooth but wide-framed doors in a plain grid. Except for knobs and handles, the fronts are completely devoid of decorative motifs and flourishes, keeping with the Shaker’s focus on utility.

The kitchen modules are spacious, functional, and well-organized, with cabinets and drawers perfectly tailored to personal needs. The ideal is a solution of single elements that can always be rearranged for future needs.

Freestanding elements with oven and stove are another must-have of the Shaker kitchen. Upper cabinets are replaced mainly by open shelves and the “Shaker ledge,” so typical of the style, from which utensils, pots, and other useful items for the kitchen are hung.

Indispensable is domestic solid woods, which are painted, varnished, or left untreated – this combines subtle, muted, soft colors such as mint, pale blue, light gray, greige, or cream.

Pastel green colors and the shaker look will bring country style to your kitchen
Pastel green colors and the shaker look will bring country style to your kitchen.
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