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Shaker Design and Modernism

Arnie and I made a pilgrimage to the Massachusetts Shaker Hancock Village in July 2014. I am a modernist but I revere Shaker design.  It’s not a contradiction at all, even though Shaker design dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Today there are only a few Shakers alive, but their contributions, especially aesthetics based on usefulness, are still powerful and timeless.  The Shakers invented clothespins, the wheel-driven washing machine, metal pens, and innovations in waterworks.   They worked with the sun’s movements in farming and siting buildings, collected and saved seeds, and used moving water to power their tools. Instead of fighting against wildlife when tending crops, for instance, they would plant an extra row of blueberry bushes for the birds - foreshadowing the modern trend of incorporating wildlife habitat by almost two centuries.

A Shaker woman named Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw in 1810. She’s also credited with inventing a method of manufacturing false teeth, improving spinning wheels, and inventing a method for manufacturing “cut nails”, which replaced forged nails - a major innovation of the time.

There are a great many other innovations to their credit.  If you are interested, I recommend the Ken Burns documentary “The Shakers”.

I took all these photographs myself when we visited Hancock Village in 2014.

The Meeting House, Hancock Shaker Village, 1793.  The pure graphic power of this space sent chills up my spine.  There was a palpable sense of strength and rhythm - not surprising, as rhythmic dancing or "shaking" was a hallmark of Shaker worship services.  The deep “Prussian Blue” on the trim is the original color.

The Shakers' use of solid, bright colors is still surprising and oddly resonant with today's tastes.  I love the sharp yellow used all over in the Hancock Dwelling House.

The use of exposed flues and ductwork is all over the Shaker Hancock Village.


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