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What can we learn from Shaker design?

November 30, 2014

The People called Shakers. In search of the perfect society

The People called Shakers. In search of the perfect society

William Morris once said, If there was ever a golden rule it was this. Have nothing in your house that was neither useful nor beautiful. These are the words of a Craftsman, dedicated to only bringing the good into the world. This quote came to my mind whilst looking recently at the elegance and craftsmanship of Shaker Design. The Shaker guiding principles were of simplicity, utility and honesty. Shaker design is so purposeful in concept and so economical in execution that is meets William Morris criteria perfectly. And also I believe we have much to learn from the underlying principles of Shaker design.

Consider a Shaker chair: four posts, three slats, a handful of stretchers, a few yards of of woolen tape for the seat. It could not be more simply made, but this is the work of a master craftsman – whose beliefs and purpose are manifest in the final product. It is the work of an unhurried and loving hand – the engaged craftsman is the committed craftsman.

What really distinguishes Shaker design is something that transcends utility, simplicity and perfection – a subtle beauty that relies almost wholly on proportion. There is harmony in the parts of a Shaker object. And in fact, there is harmony within and between all Shaker objects. Chairs, pails bonnets, a dwelling room, a barn, a kitchen garden, the land itself. Again, we return to purpose, the inner life and will that motivates one in their task at hand. The Shaker overriding belief was that the outward appearance of all things of the earth revealed their inner spirit. What is we could today create and inspire organisations to operate from the same defining belief. Perhaps not a religious one – but one where purpose, the work is in fact inspirational?

A Sisters gown

A Sisters gown

The purpose of work was as much to benefit the spirit as it was to produce goods. Mastery of craft was a partnership with tools, materials and processes: gaining experience in patience that served the craftsman in many other areas of life. This reminds me of a great teacher I had – who has sadly passed away – a carpenter by trade, who also worked with the ethos that a job well done was not based upon watching the clock or fighting time – but to give oneself to the task, to labour as in love, until he would say, that will do. The Shakers version of this mantra, was do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you would die tomorrow. The result, an environment that was uniquely their own, colourful, graceful, efficient and indeed comfortable. Their work transformed common objects in works of uncommon grace. The effort of a Shaker craftsman was not dependent on style but ‘truth’.

Interestingly – there is little written about aesthetics or design in Shaker journals – it was the context and the culture they existed in that which was the invisible means that shaped their work. So, if organisations wish to create great work, to bring the new into the world in elegant and timeless ways they must first address the key issues of purpose, context and process.

What – passes as style, is interesting to reflect upon and that with great beauty endures. Just think 1980’s power suits, big hair, and jumpsuits. In 1842 Charles Dickens, mocked the Shakers, “stiff backed chairs,” Whilst a modish Englishwoman observed that a Shaker dress would, “disfigure the very Goddess of Beauty.” The important question to ask is what has endured? The Shakers did not reject not spurn beauty but they worked hard, labouring over reinventing it.

In praise of the craftsman

In praise of the craftsman

The Shakers also had one golden rule – back to William Morris, do not make that which is not useful. And so it was their interpretation that all useful things should be also beautiful. God, as Mies van der Rohe said, was in the details, and you never know an Angel may come one day and sit on that chair – it had to be worthy of such an event.

It is said that, the most appealing thing about Shaker design was its optimism. Those that would lavish care on a chair, a basket, a clothes hanger, or a wheelbarrow, clearly believed that life was and is worthwhile. And the use of every material – iron, wood silk, tin, wool, stone – reveals the same grace. The Shakers recognised no justifiable difference in the quality of workmanship for any object, no gradations in importance of the task. All, must be done equally well. Whether it was the laying of a stone floor in the cellar, the making of closet doors in the attic, or the building of a meeting house, the work required nothing less that the skill, purpose and dedication of the craftsman.

What can the Shakers teach us about Craftsmanship and cultures of creativity? Many things.

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