Monday, February 10, 2014

Shaker Chair Chic

QUESTION: Some time ago, I bought a simple chair at a country estate auction. I love that chair but know very little about it. Someone told me that my chair was Shaker. Since I didn’t know much about the Shakers, I couldn’t tell. It just looked like a simple country chair. What can you tell me about my chair?

ANSWER: Your chair certainly looks like a Shaker chair. But you need to know a bit about the Shakers to know for sure.

Mother Ann Lee, who led the Shakers to America in 1774, had enough to do to get her sect organized. She began with a community in Albany, New York, and sent out missionaries to establish Shaker communities elsewhere in New England. But it wasn’t until Mother Lee had died and another generation of leadership took over the Shakers that the idea of producing items for sale as a way of supporting the communities came to be.

The Shakers attracted skilled cabinetmakers and craftsmen to their ranks, so it was a natural to use their skills to produce furniture for the communities. By this time, the Shakers were totally self-sustaining. In the early 19th century, the sect began to attract large numbers of people, mostly those who were discontent with society in general or were out of work. The communities offered security and food and lodging to people who might otherwise not have had it.

To support all these people became a major problem. So the elders of each community came up with ways to produce items for sale. Some made chairs, others produced seeds, clothing, especially wool capes, or took in mending and such. Many members were very creative and invented unique items such  as the electric washing machine. They were extremely organized as well, so mass-producing items like chairs wasn’t a problem. 

The Shaker communities' peak growth came in the second quarter of the 19th century. In1840, an estimated 4,000-6,000 members lived in 18 self-contained communities from Maine to Kentucky and west to Indiana. During that time, they produced the icons of Shaker design—the spare, functional chairs that inspire today’s collectors. The best display uncompromising craftsmanship combined with absolute simplicity—ladderback chairs whose turned posts have been pared to the narrowest possible dimensions. At first they produced these chairs for use within the community. But later they chose the best design and reproduced it for sale to the outside world. Customers loved their simplicity and sturdiness and the Shaker chair business took off.

But not every piece of furniture made by Shaker hands is a design masterpiece: Some pieces were poorly crafted. Some were beautifully crafted but poorly proportioned. And some exhibit such bare-bones functionalism that they’re awkward and ugly. Often they’re barely distinguishable from country furniture of the same time and place. Indeed, unscrupulous dealers and auctioneers often promote plain country pieces as Shaker and sell for several times more than they would otherwise bring.

The chairs that the Shakers designed to be sold to the public were lean and severe and produced in huge quantities that ended up on back porches and summer cottages across America. Their popularity led other manufacturers to copy their look, and these pseudo "Shaker" chairs appear in quantity at country auctions and small antiques shows. Each of the endless variety of styles has its own Shaker-designated model number. Most were originally stained dark brown, and slat-backs predominate.

Each community made their chairs a bit different from those of other communities, changing or adding little details. And while they all began with the same design template, each community’s craftsmen added their own touches for their community. For instance, many people believe that all Shaker chairs have tiny acorn finials and arms that terminate in mushroom-shaped turnings. Not so. It’s possible to tell which community made which chair by the shape of the finial alone. The back slats were also often slightly different. The Number 7 rockers, for example, have mushroom arms, four slats, and a shawl rail connecting the backposts that replaces the more common finials. The Shakers often attached a decal identifying the piece as Shaker to the back of a slat or leg. But pieces meant solely for use within the Shaker communities didn’t have decals.

Although for years Shaker chairs never sold for more than $500, now even the most common three-slat rockers bring $600-$800 or more. Some even go as high as $1,700-to-$2,200.

Pieces from Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana—often less austere, less "Shaker-looking" than their eastern counterparts—often have a Victorian feel and sometimes resemble local country furniture even more closely than classic eastern designs. .

The earliest collectors of Shaker chairs—active from 1920 to 1960—tended to be serious academic types. They studied Shaker life and doctrine, became friendly with living Shakers, and often acquired pieces directly from them as the sect's numbers dwindled. Then Shaker chairs became attractive to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals whose bank balances boosted prices to new levels.

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