How A 300-Year-Old Religious Sect Is Influencing Young Designers Today

Centuries before capital-m Modernism, the Shakers built clean-lined, functionalist furniture embodying their stringent spiritual beliefs.

The principles of honesty, utility, and simplicity read like a modernist’s credo, but those were the core design values of the Shakers, a radically conservative religious sect from England that settled in America in the late 1700s.


Though there are few practicing Shakers today, their ethos continues to inspire contemporary designers–as shown in Furnishing Utopia, a New York Design Week exhibition taking place at Sight Unseen Offsite.

Shakers–named after their worship rituals that involved whirling and trembling to “shake” away sins–had their heyday between 1820 and 1860. Because ornamentation on furniture symbolized excess and pride, Shakers instead focused on overall form, proportions, and craftsmanship. A self-reliant community that insulated itself from the outside world, Shakers often sold their furniture, which was highly regarded for its strong construction. Chair making became one of its strongest economies, and influenced American furniture making in the process.

For Furnishing Utopia, a group of designers organized by Studio Gorm collaborated with Hancock Shaker Village and Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum to develop a new line of pieces inspired by the philosophy of the religious group, but through the lens of products that are needed and desirable for contemporary consumers.

For example, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio‘s work station has a desktop on a hinge that folds up when not in use to save space and hide clutter, and a top that can be used as a standing desk. The desk also has built-in cubbies, organizational trays, and pegs that can be rearranged depending on how someone wants to use it. Riffing on the Shakers’ ritualization of chores, Christopher Speece made handsome garden rakes and a wood-and-brass Swiffer-style sweeper.

As a whole, the project brings a renewed interest in the traditional craftsmanship techniques, like wood joinery, and clever space-saving design, for which the Shakers are still highly regarded. Spy the resulting pieces in the slideshow above and at Sight Unseen Offsite from May 13–16 alongside the traditional artifacts that inspired them.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.