The Misrepresentation of Shaker Furniture

“Shaker furniture is often misrepresented. Because most collectors and curators only want to show the very best of Shaker design, the same 100 objects are carted around to exhibition after exhibition, printed in book after book. They never exhibit the piece that didn’t work or the ones that were clunky, mis-proportioned, painted an ugly color, too plain, too fancy, too primitive, or too derivative of Victorian fashion, but these are all legitimate Shaker-made objects, too. They served a purpose and were well-used over several generations. This myopic presentation gives the public a skewed perspective on our work that does not do our legacy justice, and it has given birth to the sentimental notion that Shaker craftsmen made chairs laboring under the belief that “angels might come and sit on them.” Of course, no one ever asked a Shaker his or her opinion on the subject – it might not be the answer they are looking for. Those who write under-researched books and curate exhibitions that bolster this erroneous belief are responsible for these misinterpretations.

We need scholars who actually do research instead of relying on Edward Deming Andrews’ 80-year-old mistakes and misrepresentations. Shaker objects must be understood as part of a life lived, as objects meant to be used, not as artwork to be collected. I want the world to see Shaker life as a whole, and Shaker-made objects fitting into that whole.”

– Brother Arnold Hadd, excerpt from “As Part of a Life Lived: A Shaker’s Perspective on His Community’s Craft” in Issue Seven, available here.


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