The Shakers came to America from England in 1774 with four important religious tenets: celibacy, self-sufficiency, confession of sins and communal living. That first one meant that they went from having 5,000 followers to just a handful now.
The others--separation from the outside community, and communal living-- meant that they had a dedication to hard work and perfectionism and simplicity. They designed their furniture with care, believing that making something well was in itself, "an act of prayer."
An exhibition, Gather Up the Fragments, at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, contains more than 200 household objects. It is the loving collection of Faith and Edward Deming Andrews. It shows how the simple architecture of their homes, meeting houses, and barns have had a lasting influence on American architecture and design.
Since they came with nothing, the Shakers became skilled workers with their own sense of design. The furniture and clothing and interiors are characterized by austerity and simplicity. Everything is made with a minimum of extra detail or decoration.
The ladder-back chair was a popular piece of furniture. Shaker craftsmen made most things out of pine or other inexpensive woods and hence their furniture was light in color and weight. Many of the chairs were hung on pegs on the wall, when not in use.
Their work was tied up with their religion and reflected its doctrines: simple and free of needless ornamentation.
Form follows function was clearly expressed in their work. A concept later picked up by many designers in countries such as Scandinavia and modern Japan.
Because of their independent spirit, they were great inventors and users of what was at hand. These included: the rotary harrow, the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, the flat broom, the wheel-driven washing machine, a machine for setting teeth in textile cards, a threshing machine, metal pens, a new type of fire engine, and machines for processing broom corn.
Shakers were the first large producers of medicinal herbs in the United States, and pioneers in the sale of seeds in paper packets.