Practice, Patience, Purity and the Art of Order
by Alexa Hotz
Photographed by Charlie Schuck
In the English language, the word ‘chore’ takes on two meanings: “a routine task or job” and “a difficult or disagreeable task.” The Shakers knew only of the former, although “routine” was a form of meditation, not drudgery. Repetitive chores like washing, mending, folding, and sweeping were executed with grace. To make something well—to clean something well—is an act of prayer. Settling in New England from Manchester in 1774, the Shakers were principled people who practiced equality, pacifism, and common property. Self-sufficient communities like the Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts are made up of hand-constructed buildings and plenteous produce gardens. “Hands to work” the Shaker saying goes. Another: “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.” An industrious bunch, the Shakers valued patience, practice, maintenance, and tidiness. Shaker interiors are lined with peg rails where flat brooms (a Shaker invention) and brushes hang from loops of string. Furniture fit into specific areas of the house (good built-ins!) and interior windows are architected to borrow light from one room into another. Surface areas are reduced (easier to clean), chairs with low slats slide flush under dining tables, and anti-decorative design protects from what the Shakers call ‘the sin of pride.’ William Morris, the Arts & Crafts movement, Bauhaus artists, and designers like George Nakashima and Børge Mogensen would draw from Shaker style over a century later. There’s much to learn and still much untold. Here, borrowing from the Shakers and in celebration of this year's Furnishing Utopia exhibition for New York Design Week, we approach routine chores and daily care similarly—with a common grace and domestic devotion. On view are twelve modern tools for maintenance set into the quiet rooms and muted corners of the Hancock Shaker Village.
Communal living is a key component of Shaker life. Everything was multipurpose—had to be. Slap a peg rail on a wall and you’ve got instant storage. Built-in chests of tidy drawers and cabinets line kitchen walls or serve as a room divider (in which case, cabinets would open from both sides—genius!). Set into handmade cabinets is ironstone en masse and a plate-bowl-cup-saucer for everyone.
The entry is a dust trap, and the Shakers weren’t having any of it. After all, “good spirits will not live where there is dirt.” Best keep the good spirits in and the dust out by architecting a suite of tools like wood handle brooms, rakes, hand brushes, and buckets. Here we’ve inserted a black metal dustpan. The Shakers would have liked it; they weren’t opposed to technology, metalwork, and power tools—in fact, they designed their own.
Don’t make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.Shaker dictum
Good washing is a form of self care. The sanctity of order and cleanliness extends to the body by caring for the skin, brushing hair, keeping linens air-fresh and pressed. “The rising bell rings at five o’clock in summer and half-past five in winter,” writes Frederick W. Evans about Shaker life in 1888. “Upon rising the brethren take off their bed clothes, fold them neatly, and lay them across the backs of two chairs. They then go out and do the morning chores.” Starting the day with a commitment to tidiness sets the tone for tasks to follow.
No one knew laundry better than the Shakers. They invented the clothespin and the wheel-driven washing machine. The upkeep of non-disposable clothing is a multi-part process: a gentle wash, thorough rinse, sun bleaching and air drying, brushing fabric with a clothes brush (encouraging good spirits), keeping shirts folded, pressed, corners crisped, and everything well-stowed in stubby wooden chests.
A place for everything, and everything in its place.Shaker dictum
The Shakers were busy manufacturing their own tools and household furnishings. They got up to all sorts of tasks from millwork, carpentry, cabinetmaking, broom making, tailoring, weaving, shoe making, book binding, basketry, printing, leather tanning and more. “Let [labor] be your daily calling,” is a Shaker dictum that comes to mind. There were plenty of tools to help facilitate (handmade saws and machinery alike) so the shed, too, was kept tidy with toolboxes and large tools hung on peg rails.
Reliable and enduring tools to water and rake the garden gave way to the growing, processing, and packaging of garden seeds and medicines carried beyond the Shaker community. As great cultivators of their own vegetables and herbal medicines, the self-sustaining Shakers payed homage to the natural world through the beautiful and graceful objects that serve it.
During NYCxDesign, Design Within Reach will present Hands to Work, an exhibit led by Studio Gorm, Christopher Specce, and Ladies & Gentleman Studio. Creative direction from Ladies & Gentleman Studio, additional support from the Norwegian Consulate General New York. Hands to Work presents Shaker-inspired "objects that explore a more virtuous way of living through ritualizing the everyday mundane." With new designs from 26 international design studios, Hands to Work is showing Saturday, May 19 through Tuesday, May 22 at 158 Mercer Street in Soho.
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Styling Natasha Felker