Shaker Kitchen Cabinetry: Form Following Function

Shaker -style furniture has long been a recognized and sought after style, largely adopted by the modernist design movement in the earlier part of the 20th Century, who used the minimalist, highly functional style to inspire their own development. The Shaker community were responsible for crafting not only furniture, for which they are probably most famous, but also leather goods through to ladies underwear. Their highly skilled craftsmanship was undeniable and led to their work being highly sought after by those outside the Shaker community.

To understand why Shaker kitchen cabinetry and Shaker furniture generally are so highly regarded, we have to look at why they imbued so much importance in the quality of the materials they used and the craft techniques applied to creating their manufactured goods. Shakers were a religious group who originated in England at a time of great religious upheaval – the late 18th Century – and their spiritual leader was Mother Ann Lee, unusual because she was a woman. It was Mother Ann Lee who led the establishment of the Shaker community here in the United States in 1774. Mother Ann Lee’s teachings shared much in common with the Quaker belief that through good works, not simply charity but good work generally, could lead a person to closer communion with God.

Shakers believed that the quality of their work served as a testament to the Lord, and so only the choicest materials should be used and only the very best efforts of the craftsman should be applied to them in creating goods. This applied to all of the goods, furnishings and furniture which they produced irrespective of whether it was to be used by the Shaker community or was to be taken to market.

Shaker furniture and kitchen cabinetry is known for the simplistic style without decorative adornment (because Shakers did not believe in irrelevant frippery) which was characterized by high-quality workmanship. The cabinets and furniture so produced has to be highly functional as this was the purpose to which they would be put, and how well their goods performed their function testified to their beliefs.

Unfortunately, due to the Shaker belief that marriage was not a Christian institution and that virginal purity was to be observed, or where not possible, celibacy was to be practiced, the Shakers started to die out. They did manage to continue as a community into the 20th Century because adoption was not forbidden, and many of the Shakers who descended from the original communities were in fact adopters rather than natural children. Nevertheless, fewer and fewer Shakers resulted which led to difficulties in propagating the skills acquired, especially in joinery. More than this, the dawning of the modern, consumer age led to much cheaper, mass-produced, but inferior cabinetry and furniture being made available and the high-priced Shaker furniture could not compete in this market.

Fortunately for us all, the styles and design inspiration have survived so we can enjoy Shaker-style furniture and kitchen cabinetry today and modern production techniques provide quality levels the original Shakers would have approved of.

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