I was fortunate enough to live at the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire for 14 years, from 1972 to 1986. My parents ran the Village Museum and we were given housing in the Children's House, built in 1810.1 had the privilege of knowing seven Shaker Sisters and listened to their beliefs and memories of the old days. While living there, I found myself exploring and studying the architectural elements of the buildings, as well as the furniture in the collections.
While living in these unique surroundings, I had the exceptional opportunity of apprenticing with an Old World cabinetmaker from Madrid, Alejandro de la Cruz. His teachings emphasized tradition, classicism, and integrity in work, design, and living. This apprenticeship provided me with a direction and focus for studying Shaker and other classic designs. At the same time, it allowed me to constructively criticize some old pieces and to rebuild or redesign them by using better construction methods, while still retaining their original charm and attractiveness.
Like the architectural elements of antiquity, the beauty and truth of Shaker design are most evident in basic forms. The overall lines, proportions, and stance can be seen in a simple piece of furniture like the candle stand shown in the photo at right. Details, if they are done well, add a further dimension and will not obscure or clutter the general form.
I do not believe that the Shakers set out to develop their own designs; rather, their beliefs reshaped forms with which they were already familiar. Shaker design can be seen as a stripped-down Federal style, with emphasis on Hepplewhite and Sheraton elements. Federal style was concurrent with the beginning and the development of the Shaker religious movement. The key cabinetmakers of each Shaker village were also free to develop the unique flavor of each community's work while taking direction from the lead community of Mount Lebanon, New York.
While a good deal of Shaker design charm lies in its naiveté, even more depends on the cabinetmaker's complete mastery of the form. Creating furniture designs requires a thorough understanding of the design process, and being able to "get into the heads" of the old masters to understand why certain design decisions were made. It also requires a good understanding of furniture construction using past and present techniques. It is important not just to acknowledge a piece as a masterpiece and copy it, but to find out why it is a masterpiece, by asking many questions about it. The answers will provide your building blocks for creating your own designs in any style.
David Lamb was resident cabinetmaker at Canterbury Shaker Village, New Hampshire, between 1979 and 1986. He now builds Shaker-inspired furniture at his shop in Canterbury.
John Wilson perfects the
Was this article helpful?