When Jean Burks arrived at the Shelburne Museum in 1995, she was already a well-recognized authority on the Shakers. She joined a museum better known for exuberantly decorated furniture and whimsical folk art than for the understated design that is the hallmark of the United Society of Believers, who lived in utopian communities from Maine to Kentucky.
Struck by the contrast, Burks was eager to juxtapose the dramatically different styles that coexisted in the Nineteenth Century, when Shaker communities were at their height. Shelburne’s senior curator also wanted to cut through the clutter of clichés about Shaker style, presenting Shaker design in the context of current research.
Burks’ complex agenda is summed up in “Out of This World: Shaker Design Past, Present and Future” at the Shelburne Museum, on view through October 28. Organized thematically, the ambitious display relates Shaker design to so-called Fancy furniture of the same period and arrays Modern and contemporary furniture in a sympathetic vein.
“This is the first major museum exhibition to highlight the strong connections between Shaker and contemporary design,” says Burks, who organized the show with associate curator Kory Rogers. Included are 150 examples of furniture, paintings, spirit drawings, textiles, household objects, accessories, ephemera and commercial wares made by the Shakers for non-Shakers. The show occupies the entire first floor of the Webb Gallery.
Shelburne borrowed all but about 20 pieces. Lenders include Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, N.H., the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in Maine, collectors Robert and Katharine Booth, Jane and Gerald Katcher, Bob and Aileen Hamilton and dealer John Keith Russell.
“Out of This World” also features pieces from M. Stephen Miller’s extensive collection of Shaker products and packaging formed over the past 25 years. Miller is the author of From Shaker Lands and Shaker Hands, due out from University Press of New England in August. The book is an updated examination of the Shaker Industries, which received their last major treatment in The Community Industries of the Shakers by Edward Deming Andrews in 1933.
The exhibition’s title, “Out of This World,” is a play on words. The Shakers lived apart from mainstream society, what they called “the World.” Shaker design, which embodies the sect’s spiritual and philosophical values, is distilled from World design but not independent of its influences. The Shakers adapted popular Nineteenth Century forms for their own purposes and developed commercial products meant to appeal to nonbelievers. In the most colloquial sense, Shaker design is considered “out of this world” beautiful by many people today.
“Shaker furniture has been displayed on pedestals, as sculpture. We want people to see it again in its appropriate context, on the floor, in proper scale. We also want people to see how the Shakers used color,” says the curator. Scale and color were two ways in which Shaker furniture differed from mainstream furniture of the same era. To a contemporary audience, Shaker color can seem bold. To an eye accustomed to Fancy furniture, it may have appeared timid.
Few extant pieces of colorful Shaker furniture have undisturbed finishes, says Burks. “Most of this disruption was certainly intentional on the part of the Shakers themselves who removed or renewed the finish on their furniture over time, wanting it to remain neat and clean.”
“I want visitors to abandon their preconceptions as they move through the show,” says the curator, who opens with the expected †three oval boxes, a peg rail and a classic Shaker chair †then proceeds to the unexpected.
“Out of This World” is organized into five sections. The first section, “The Shaker World,” showcases classic Shaker furniture, which evolved as a matter of practicality and religious belief. It was simple, well-made and usually symmetrical, though it could be asymmetrical if convenience dictated. As examples, Burks cites small workstands with push-pull drawers that can be accessed from either side, secretaries with double drop leaf writing surfaces, and sewing desks that provide storage space and expandable surface area.
“Although we don’t have a lot of Shaker furniture, we do have the premier collection of Nineteenth Century Fancy furniture,” says Burks of the Shelburne collection. The design the Shakers rejected is arrayed in “The Fancy World,” which draws from Sumpter Priddy III’s groundbreaking book and exhibition, American Fancy .
Decorative excess was forbidden by The Believers’ Millennial Laws of 1845, but religious scruples did not stop the Shakers from making and marketing Fancy goods for nonbelievers.
Fancy furniture on view includes a New Hampshire tall clock with a case painted in black and yellow to resemble feathers and a Bath, Maine, dressing table decorated by 18-year-old Elizabeth Lombard with landscapes, shells, seaweed, a basket of fruit, birds and leaves.
In “The Spirit World,” Burks explores the contradictions inherent in Shaker drawings, which in their complexity and detail show the influence of embroidery and other schoolgirl arts by nonbelievers.
“Here is the Shaker perception of the next world,” Burks says of the installation, painted Prussian blue to suggest a Shaker meetinghouse.
As the Nineteenth Century wore on, the Shakers increasingly depended on revenues from their industries, which catered to the needs and tastes of the nonbelievers. “The Commercial World” looks at Shaker industries, from seeds, poplar ware, woodenware and medicinal herbs, to food, furniture, sweaters, cloaks and “fancywork,” including pincushions, carriers and sewing boxes.
“The tenets of Shaker style have directly and indirectly worked their way into Twentieth Century design,” says Kory Rogers, who conceived “The Contemporary World.”
In 1927, a #7 Shaker rocking armchair attracted the attention of architect Kaare Klint, whose student Borge Morgensen designed the J-39 Shaker chair for FDB Mobler. Ikea continues to mass-market Shaker-inspired Scandinavian designs.
While Shaker influence is not explicit in George Nakashima’s work, the Pennsylvania craftsman’s organic, functional furniture expresses a similar sensibility. Rogers also included a Japanese tansu chest, asymmetrical and ultimately practical; 1950s tables by Paul McCobb; a red AVL Shaker chair for Moooi by Dutch designer Joep van Lieshout; and Roy McMakin of Seattle’s untitled, 2005, resembling a Shaker stand.
Rogers chose not to include the worst of so-called Shaker style. “Ripping off the Shakers, and doing it badly, is nothing new,” he says.
Following its close at the Shelburne Museum, “Out of This World” travels to New York City, where it will be on view at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design and Culture from March 13 to June 15, 2008.
Coinciding with the New York opening, Yale University Press is publishing an accompanying catalog, featuring essays by Jean Burks, Kory Rogers, Robert Emlen, Gerard Wertkin, Jean Humez, Sumpter Priddy and M. Stephen Miller.
Special programs at Shelburne this summer include a talk by contemporary cabinetmaker Thomas Moser, a gallery tour by Burks and a lecture by Shaker historian Darryl Thompson. Shot at Canterbury, the most complex of the Shaker communities, a video explores the implication of lifestyle on Shaker architecture and village structure.
The curators hope that “Out of This World” will attract younger audiences.
“Our founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was ahead of her time in her interest in weathervanes and quilts. Shelburne should be thinking about current design trends that are linked with the past,” says Burks.
With this in mind, Shelburne Museum is presenting contemporary Vermont quilts and quilts by Rosie Lee Tompkins, who died late last year. On view in the 1901 Round Barn is “Chandelirious!,” offering inventive lighting devices by contemporary designers. “My Bad †It’s All Good” explores new and recent work by contemporary designer Jason Miller. “Got eBay? Celebrity Collections Created Online” features collections built on eBay with a maximum of $1,000 by Jerry Seinfeld, Bianca Jagger, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, musician John Lurie and others. “Going Green: 20 Eco-Friendly Designs for a Healthier Life” opens July 26.
For traditionalists, there are also displays of Audubon prints, American paintings and sporting art by Ogden Pleissner.
For much of the Twentieth Century, collectors have looked at Shaker design through the lens of Modernism. The resulting misconceptions are ones that the curators of “Out Of This World” hope to correct with this engaging display.
Open through October 28, the Shelburne Museum is on Route 7. For information, 802-985-3346 or www.shelburnemuseum.org .