Shaker Design: Out of This World was an exploration of 200 years of Shaker design and spirituality. In addition—and for the first time in a major exhibition—Shaker Design illustrated the Shaker influence on diverse contemporary design, including Scandinavian furniture and the work of George Nakashima.

The Shaker movement was founded by Ann Lee (1736–1784), who, with a small band of followers, immigrated to America from England in 1774. From New York they traveled north, buying land near Albany; by 1781 they were established enough to undertake a mission to New England. After Mother Ann’s death, subsequent leaders spread the faith throughout New England and to Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. The society reached its apogee of about 6,000 members in the years just before the Civil War and then slowly went into a decline, with only the last glimmerings still with us. Yet the Shakers have lasted longer and gained more fame than any other utopian community this country has produced.

While being held in an English jail, Mother Ann had a vision that Jesus came to her and became one with her. It was a vision of the second coming, but this time with the spirit residing in a woman (equality of the sexes was an important tenet of Shaker life). Hence the real name of the society is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. The name Shaker is derived from the fact that while members would sit in silent communion, like the Quakers, at some point during their meditations they would be taken with “a mighty shaking.”

The exhibition and catalogue for Shaker Design examined, for the first time, Shaker design in the broadest possible contexts of time and space, ranging from 1820 to the present and taking into consideration the non-Shaker influences that the Believers consciously accepted or rejected throughout their history.

Organized by Jean Burks, senior curator at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum and one of the world’s preeminent experts on Shaker furniture, the exhibition contained more than 150 pieces, including approximately 130 works on loan from private collections and museums such as Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, and the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York. The majority of these works had never been on public view, including M. Stephen Miller’s extraordinary collection of seed packaging, boxes, and poplar ware made by Shakers for sale to the outside world, as well as an important double trustee’s desk recently acquired by the American Folk Art Museum. The exhibition also included household objects and textiles, rarely seen spiritual drawings, that reflect Shaker visions of a heavenly sphere, products made for sale to 20th-century consumers, and other objects that illustrate the influence that Shaker design has had, and continues to have, on contemporary style.

The exhibition was divided into five sections: masterpieces of Shaker furniture made between 1820 and 1860; objects from Shaker lands and by Shaker hands made specifically for sale to the “world’s people” (non-Shakers); American Fancy, a popular 19th-century movement rejected by the Shakers; Shaker spirituality, as expressed in the rarely seen gift drawings; and the strong Shaker influence on contemporary designers such as Danish furniture makers Børge Mogensen (1914–1972) and Hans Wegner (1914–2007), and American designers George Nakashima (1905–1990) and Roy McMakin (b. 1956).

The first gallery, “The Shaker World,” included classic furniture produced from 1820 to 1860, the period of gospel simplicity, when the Shakers were most isolated from the outside world. These masterpieces originated from workshops and dwelling houses in the Shaker communities of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York.

“The Commercial World” was a rich display of Shaker-made goods, including woodenware, textiles, medicinal herbs and remedies, and food products and garden seed packaging, all made specifically for consumption by non-Shaker customers. It also included candid photographs taken by Believers to document their positive and profitable interactions with the “world’s people.”

“The Spiritual World” presented seldom-seen, spiritually inspired gift drawings produced before 1850 that provided insight into the Shakers’ colorful, yet private, perception of the next world. This gallery also featured musical manuscripts; an innovative music-writing pen; and recordings of the hymns, anthems, and songs that formed such an integral part of Shaker spiritual life.

“The Fancy World” placed Shaker design in context with other early 19th-century styles and featured painted furniture, ceramics, and textiles in the Fancy style (1800–1840), all produced in the secular world that the Shakers consciously rejected.

“The Contemporary World” highlighted the strong influence of Shaker design on 20th-century Scandinavian furniture, Japanese-inspired American furniture, and work by contemporary Shaker-inspired artists. As noted earlier, this was the first major exhibition to explore the relationship between Shaker and contemporary design.

Organized by Bard Graduate Center and curated by Jean Burks, senior curator at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum.

In the Spirit video by Han Vu

Creating Heaven on Earth video by Han Vu