In August 1774, eight intrepid Shakers landed in Manhattan from Manchester, England, seeking a home where they could practice their fledgling religion in peace. Nearly two and a half centuries later, their presence has returned to the congregation; specifically, to a storybook section of Commerce Street in the West Village.
Opened in December, the Commerce Inn is a Shaker kitchen and early American tavern with touches of 19th-century oyster house. The white-walled dining room is a demanding tribute to the Protestant religious group, whose signature furniture and decor rejected ornamentation and insisted on simplicity, practicality and honesty in the craft. Chefs Rita Sodi and Jody Williams have spent years studying old Shaker recipes and cookbooks as inspiration for their dishes, including spoon bread, oxtail, and ginger cake.
“Our goal is to truly honor what they were doing,” said Ms. Williams, 59. She and Ms. Sodi, 60, who are partners in both life and business, paid particular attention to the Shakers’ hospitality. and how they welcomed outsiders into their communities.
“If people near the Shakers looted their fields or steal from them, what did they do in return? They’ve just grown more to take care of everyone,” said Ms. Williams. “That gave me chills.”
Like many, the two were first drawn to the Shakers for their enchantingly simple furnishings. But as they learned more about the group, they were struck by its progressive attitudes toward gender, race, and sustainability. To develop their concept, they worked closely with Lacy Schutz, the executive director of the Shaker Museum in Chatham, NY, which is currently working on a massive expansion designed by Annabelle Selldorf, the founder of Selldorf Architects in New York.
Shakers “aspired to do something different from the rest of the world,” said Ms. Schutz. Both sexes had equal responsibility and mobility within the church long before women could own property and vote, and black congregants were welcomed decades before the country abolished slavery.
The group’s influence has been particularly strong of late, inspiring not only restaurateurs such as Mrs. Sodi and Mrs. Williams, but also makers in fashion, art and design. As the Shaker hymn proclaims, this is the gift of being simple, perhaps even more so in these times that are anything but.
“The people I’ve talked to, the designers, the creators, people like Rita and Jody,” said Ms. Schutz, are now drawn to aspects of Shakerism because of “a desire for a belief system and a level of integrity.”
“We’re looking back at the Shakers to discover what we’re looking for collectively,” she added.
Craftsmanship as worship
The religion, formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, began in England as an offshoot of Quakerism. The followers were given the name Shakers because of an early form of worship that involved spontaneous, ecstatic movements.
Based on the principles of communal living, celibacy and a life of service to God, Shakerism flourished under the leadership of its charismatic founding leader, Mother Ann Lee, an illiterate visionary who preached about receiving messages from God that these principles were the only way to salvation.
The teachings of the religion also include the belief that any object that church members lay their hands on is a vessel of worship. Recognized for innovations including the circular saw, flat broom and seeds sold in packs, the Shakers, whose members call themselves sisters and brothers, developed a special skill for woodworking and cabinet making.
They used pieces first to furnish their growing communities and then as a way to support them by selling items to consumers and marketing their “Shaker Made” brand as synonymous with well-made and sustainable.
At their peak, the Shakers had a footprint that stretched from Maine to Florida and as far west as Indiana. Their furniture became valuable to collectors in the early 1900s, when it began to be valued as one of the first uniquely American design styles. Around the same time, the Shakers’ ranks began to dwindle.
“The appeal of Shakerism is not an easy sell,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, 65, one of two practicing congregation members at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. Founded in 1783, it is the only active Shaker community in existence. The other resident, Sister June Carpenter, is 84.
Emily Adams Bode Aujla, the designer of the Bode menswear line, is part of the Shaker Museum’s ‘Maker’s Circle’. The group of artists and designers, including Katie Stout and brothers Simon and Nikolai Haas, come together to discuss the influence and history of the Shakers in videos shot for the museum’s YouTube channel and at events including the Design Miami -scholarship.
“Their dedication to craft was unparalleled,” said Ms. Bode Aujla, 32. While her quilt patches have a handmade aesthetic quality reminiscent of Shaker clothing of the past, it’s the philosophy behind them that draws more directly from Shakerism. To reduce waste, she mainly makes clothes with dead stock – unused fabric – and archival textiles, much like the Shakers, who would reuse fabric from worn-out clothing to make doll clothes or mops.
“We have created a new way of starting a business and investing in certain things, such as handicrafts and handicrafts, and we can keep up with making unique clothes,” said Ms. Bode Aujla. “They’re kind of an icon for that.”
The Shaker spirit has been channeled through other fashion designers, including Tory Burch, whose Spring 2021 collection was based on the Shaker maxim “beauty rests on utility” and presented in a show at Hancock Shaker Village, a former community museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Last year, Hancock Shaker Village was the location of another show, “Heaven Bound”, featuring the work of Thomas Barger, a sculptor in Bushwick. Mr Barger said the Shakers had a “holistic ethos – men and women were treated equally – and that applies to today.” He added that a growing interest in Shaker crafts was evident, citing a reason that has inspired many people to refresh the homes they spent a lot of time in during the pandemic: “People just want to live with beautiful things. ”
For his exhibition, which explored themes of religion and agriculture, 30-year-old Barger undermined the austerity of Shaker furniture by using elements of it for playful effect, turning chairs upside down, exaggerating their height and crushing Shaker baskets. to make sculpture with plywood and polyurethane.
Others have made less dramatic reinterpretations. At his studio in Windham, NY, Brian Persico, a furniture designer, creates ladder-back chairs and sofas heavily influenced by the Shaker tradition. Less rigid than the originals that inspire them, his pieces have a slight curve that makes them more at home in the 21st century, while still drawing on the uncomplicated allure of Shaker design.
“It’s so straight forward,” Mr. Persico, 35, said of the style. “And it speaks to a much simpler life, which everyone aspires to but is completely unattainable.”
Keeping the Faith Alive
In Maine’s Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, which consists of a row of white-and-brick buildings on top of a gently rising hill, such life is very real, if anything but simple. The age and immobility of the elderly resident leaves most of the work required to keep Shakerism alive in 2022 to Brother Arnold, who joined the Shakers in 1978 at age 21 and now the undisputed historian, theologian and spiritual ambassador of the faith.
His responsibilities include maintaining the village’s five-story 19th-century residence and 19,000-tree apple orchard; herding his herd of Scottish Highland cattle and ever-expanding flocks of sheep; and managing an online and wholesale spice business.
Although residents have hired outside help in the past, the pandemic has limited their ability to hire as many staff as in the past. “I’ll be very happy if I don’t have to do all those things,” he said. “But for now, that’s what I have to do. God gives me the strength to do it.”
Though his fate rests largely on him, Brother Arnold is unfazed by speculation about the survival of his faith. “As we do the will of God, callings will be instituted. I’ve seen that bear,” he said, adding that there is one person who will most likely join Sabbathday Lake soon.
He has always viewed the broader fascination with the material history of Shakerism as a way for the world to better understand Shakers. But too limited a fascination with the goods obscures the Shaker message of a life in the service of God.
“A chair is a chair: it’s just there to sit on,” he said.