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Design with Optimism

Alan Moore on what we can learn from Shaker design

Shaker rocking chair. Photo credit: Julian Calverley

William Morris once said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ These are the words of a craftsman, dedicated to only bringing the good into the world. Morris’s words across the Atlantic echoed the Shaker guiding principles of simplicity, utility and honesty in everything they designed and made.

Shaker design is so purposeful in concept and so economical in execution that it meets the William Morris criteria perfectly. 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 woollen 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.

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. The overriding Shaker belief was that the outward appearance of all things reveals their inner spirit.

The purpose of work for the Shakers 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. A job well done is not based upon watching the clock or fighting time — but in giving oneself to the task. The Shakers worked both as though they had a thousand years to live and as if they would die tomorrow. Their work transformed common objects into works of uncommon grace. The effort of a Shaker craftsman was dependent not on style but ‘truth’.

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

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 also be beautiful. God, as architect 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 who 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 than the skill, purpose and dedication of the craftsman.

Are these the lost values of another age, where time, grace, utility and beauty were always considered, shaping the way a people led their daily lives? Or might we look at our modern world and see perhaps that applying ourselves to creating only that which is useful and beautiful could be rewarding in many ways?

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