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Shaker-style kitchen

Shaker (c.1747 to 1900)

A religious sect founded in England in the late 1700s, the Shakers believed in common ownership of property and communal living. Persecuted for their beliefs, they emigrated to America where they led lives of abstinence and celibacy.


Shaker quilt

The Shakers believed that every object in the home should have a function and that decoration was unnecessary. 'Whatever is fashioned, let it be plain and simple and for the good' and 'Beauty rests on utility' are two of their favourite sayings. But because they also believed that the quality of their work was a testament to God, each item they made was painstakingly honed to perfection.

Style

  • open plan
  • simple, uncluttered
  • limited colour palette of red, blue, yellow and blue-green
  • handcrafted wooden furniture
  • natural materials
  • storage
  • hand within a heart motif - it meant 'hands to work and hearts to God'

Influences

  • American folk art. Folk art is the decorative tradition of peasant communities, and varies from region to region. Wherever the Shakers settled, they picked up some of the qualities of these traditions. For example, their simply constructed wooden toys, rose-painted boxes and rag dolls are similar to New England styles.

The names

  • There are no names of particular furniture makers as the Shakers didn't believe in taking individual credit.

At the time

  • 1770 Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee imprisoned in England
  • 1774 First Shaker village set up in America
  • 1787 American Constitution signed
  • 1787 Mozart's Don Giovanni performed for the first time
  • 1789 Songs of Innocence written by William Blake

Shaker boxes, cradle, egg basket and stools

Get the look

  • Colour palette - keep the walls neutral. Bare white plaster is best if your walls are good enough. Stick to the Shaker colour palette: red, light and dark blue, warm yellow, and a blue-green. The Shakers used natural plant dyes and clays to make their paints and dye their fabrics. The paint should be matt rather than gloss and, for real authenticity, use casein or milk paints; some of them are still being made from the original recipes.
  • Furniture - is key to the look. Cherrywood and maple were the most used woods. Choose simple shapes such as ladder back chairs with woven-tape seats in one of the colours of the palette. Use a simple trestle table for dining. Sofas and padded seats were comforts the Shakers did without. However, as not many of us are prepared to live so austerely, cover your sofa with a fabric in keeping with the colour scheme.
  • Storage - everything should have its place. A typical look is peg rails hung all round the room at head height. The Shakers hung chairs off these, as well as mirrors and tools - basically, anything that could go up, went up. This kept the rooms neat and tidy plus it was easy to sweep underneath.
  • Wardrobes - wardrobes and chests of drawers can take up whole walls. All the handles should line up.
  • Fabrics - choose natural fabrics such as wool, cotton and silk. The Shakers made their own. A discreet check or denim is also suitable and ginghams can be used for curtains.
  • Flooring - the floor should be bare boards but can be varnished.
  • Woodwork - this should be left plain or given an orangey stain with varnish.
  • Lighting - look for plain candlesticks and sconces, particularly in tin.
  • Boxes - oval-shaped boxes in three different sizes, with a beautiful swallowtail and copper pin construction, are one of the quintessential Shaker looks.
  • Have a clear out - the Shakers didn't believe in clutter or unnecessary objects. However, small details such as beeswax candles, lavender sachets and wooden toys can add to the overall look.

What to invest in

Ironically, although the Shakers disliked commerce, today their style is so popular that real Shaker pieces fetch huge sums at auction. Oprah Winfrey is said to be a huge fan.

However, if you buy a beautifully constructed handmade piece of furniture, its worth can only appreciate over time.

Where to see it

  • The American Museum, at Claverton near Bath
  • Further afield - Hancock Shaker village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA

Further reading

  • Essential Shaker Style by Tessa Evelegh (Ward Lock)
  • Shaker - Life, Work and Art by June Sprigg and David Larkin (Houghton Mifflin)

Image copyright:
Main room image and picture of Shaker storage boxes courtesy of The American Museum.
All other images courtesy of www.shaker.co.uk.


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