The true Shaker kitchen was spotless, ready for hungry workers at 5:30 a.m., and doubtless the epitome of efficiency and craftsmanship among other things. Mine is not. Quite. Yet. It’s true I took inspiration from the many aspects I have always admired about the Shaker ethic. I have always found their neat, unadorned spaces with their certain self-imposed restraint a principle to emulate. I had to respect their pared-down brevity of design that was nothing if not practical. Utilitarianism was the chief principle employed in all their endeavors, whether architecture, furniture or farming. They put value on usefulness and efficiency, bringing a sincere honesty to every undertaking. We would not go too far wrong if we were to adopt some of the ideals the shakers held dear to their hearts. I knew that if I could adhere to such a significant theme, I might gain a particular substance to the overall effect.
Their work was considered a form of worship. It was somewhere written that Thomas Merton was once heard to say, “the particular grace of a shaker chair is due to the fact that that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit in it.” In their craftsmanship they sought to make each piece of furniture beter than any other constructed before with the emphasis always on function. Excess details not only obscured design, but more importantly, contributed nothing to the products use.
Workers today have been impressed at discovering features including baseboards dovetailed around a chimney, mortice-and-tenon joints at the top of corners of interior and exterior door surrounds, and splined joints between sheathing boards underneath the siding to make the building airtight. Such sturdy construction is especially astonishing since many of the builders in shaker communities lacked professional training.
Shaker tables, chairs and cabinets are found to be indestructible. Their craftsmen not only created their own type of mortice-and-tenon joints- a salient characteristic that gives their furniture its special strength and endurance. From their elegant, lightweight ladder back chairs to the perfect ovals of their wooden boxes, Shaker crafts are increasingly being celebrated for their fusion of timeless beauty and utilitarianism.
They achieved integrity of style that rivaled many of the great movements in the fine arts. Practically everything we call modern is implicit in shaker design. their abhorrence of ornament in room design preceded the idea later expounded by Walter Gropius, master of the Bauhaus movement, that form follows function. They even had formalized laws that forbad cornices, extraneous mouldings and embellishment if not necessary to the function required.
Consider just a few of the Shaker inventions; clothes pins, cut nails, the circular saw, condensed milk, the washing machine, the tongue-and-groove machine, the lumber drying kiln and countless other life-enhancing devices. They were the first to install running water and electricity in their buildings and were always keen to adopt technology that represented improvement.
When it came time to add a kitchen at the end of my 1840 home, it seemed natural to pull together a few of those elements that might emulate the shaker aesthetic while complimenting my recently restored home. I made a list of probable inclusions in the design. Clean lines and surfaces. White walls with a plastered finish or facsimile thereof. A period pine floor. A nice, naturally soft worn finish to the woodwork that’s easy on the eyes and easy to live with (maybe blue-a grey blue). That chaste look they got with their cabinetry. simple. Organized. Beautiful. And, oh yes, a large working fireplace. Perhaps a wood ceiling. A few choice pieces of antique furniture of course. A stone country sink.
Lots of fenestration. The shakers loved lots of light, as do I. Six over sixes should be the right scale. I’m beginning to get the picture. How about Dutch doors, one on each side of the room to get those nice summer breezes? It may seem like a long list but its not. It’s less. And less is more. Right? They thought so. Me too.
I may not go so far as to hang my chairs upside-down on the wall But I may have a long sawbuck table with benches as they did. I have an idea for the exterior that may work. Being by habit practical, the shakers sometimes took the economical approach to siding a portion of their home. They shingled. No expensive clapboard needed. No Paint. I like it. And it would complement the rest of the house that’s covered in wooden ashlar. I think. a granite chimney up the gable end would be nice. That puts the fireplace at the end of the room. Nice. Cozy It was the fridge in the corner that set the order for the cabinet configuration. It seemed a strange idea at the time but it’s worked out surprisingly well. Situated between the sink and the cooktop, that triangular plan that is so practical worked for me. And it maximizes the available space. I thought of ways I might take advantage of those triangular corners on either side of the fridge. Since I like to bottle my own wine, I designed wine racks on one side and a small pantry on the other. Even a couple of cute drawers squeezed in. I’m thinking like a Shaker now.
I had originally planned for a six foot square island but when I found the ten foot sawbuck with benches it seemed a better choice since benches are among the most essential furnishings of the large Shaker dining areas. Believe it or not, the pair of benches and table came separately but had the same engine-red paint, popular with the original Hutterite builders. I thought too, that the island would have sectioned the room somewhat. The table however, integrated the service end and the fireside end while keeping the room open and engaging. And there have been many an occasion when that long table has served well. I could almost see two benches of Shakers enjoying a fine country-grown feast as guests at our dinner parties. It’d be quite a dance too, no doubt.
One way to add colour and charm to a country kitchen is to display favorite dishes on open shelves or drying racks rather then stacking them away in closed cupboards. I didn’t particularly need upper cupboards and didn’t think they’d contribute much to the design. I quite like the clean, spaciousness I ended up with, accented by the severe lines of the hood vent that I had made to go over the cooktop. I’m still trying to decide on those very shaker peg racks on either side of it. Might work. we’ll see.
There was an interesting development regarding the Kingston limestone countertop. The stonecutters insisted on measuring it up for themselves even though I supplied them with what I assured them were accurate drawings. Weeks later they arrived to install the stone top. They didn’t fit. They had to recut huge pieces all over again. Their expense of course. Whatever happened to ‘measure twice, cut once?’ I don’t think those guys ever heard of the Shakers.
When it came time to choose appliances, I knew I needed those that were not only efficient but also good-looking in a sparse, clean sort of way. When I found the Miele cooktop in a timeless design, I had a good start It looked good on the limestone counter. The Miele dishwasher worked well too, in that the controls were on the inside of the door paneling. I didn’t want to see them. I was about to buy a very expensive tap set when I found an old set in a salvage yard for about a tenth of the price. They looked like they’d been there since the shakers last shook it up.
The hood vent however, was a bit of a problem I couldn’t find one on the market that was suitable, so I designed one and had it built around the conventional interior works. I remembered an antique drying rack I had once and was able to design another one from memory. It works quite well, being so simple. However, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have made ito as long. There’s no need to have it longer than the sink beneath it. That drying rack was a must for me. I’m too lazy to fill the dishwasher. Fortunately, the space between shelves in the pantry cupboard could house the microwave. Out of sight is sometimes a good design option.
today shaker design is interpreted in many ways. Even the gentlest embrace of its principles can give a home a quiet semblance of beauty and order. as unintentional as it may have been, The Shakers have left us an appealing design philosophy that feels as right in the modern era as it did long ago.
“Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.” Ann Lee, the leader of the first shakers to leave Manchester England in 1774 and travel to New York state.
Want to see photos of a Shaker Kitchen? click here