Editorial By: Mel Shakespeare | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper & Mel Shakespeare
The true Shaker kitchen was spotless, ready for hungry workers at 5:30 a.m., and doubtless the epitome of efficiency and craftsmanship among other things. Mine is not. Quite. Yet. It’s true I took inspiration from the many aspects I have always admired about the Shaker ethic. I have always found their neat, unadorned spaces with their certain self-imposed restraint a principle to emulate.
I had to respect their pared down brevity of design that was nothing if not practical. Utilitarianism was the chief principle employed in all of their endeavours, whether architecture, furniture, or farming. They put value on usefulness and efficiency, bringing a sincere honesty to every undertaking. We would not go too far wrong if we were to adopt some of the ideals the Shakers held dear to their hearts. I knew that if I could adhere to such a significant theme, I might gain a particular substance to the overall effect.
Their work was considered a form of worship. It was somewhere written that Thomas Merton was once heard to say, “the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” In their craftsmanship, they sought to make each piece of furniture better than any other constructed before with the emphasis always on function. Excess details not only obscured design, but more importantly, contributed nothing to a product’s use. Workers today have been impressed at discovering features including baseboards dovetailed around a chimney, mortise-and-tenon joints at the top of corners of interior and exterior door surrounds, and splined joints between sheathing boards underneath the siding to make the building airtight. Such sturdy construction is especially astonishing since many of the builders in Shaker communities lacked professional training.
Their tables, chairs, and cabinets are indestructible. Shaker craftsmen not only created their own type of mortise-and-tenon joints, but also cut masterful dovetail joints – a salient characteristic that gives their furniture its special strength and endurance. From their elegant, lightweight ladderback chairs to the perfect ovals of their wooden boxes, Shaker crafts are increasingly being celebrated for their fusion of timeless beauty and utilitarianism.
They achieved integrity of style that rivaled many of the great movements in the fine arts. Practically everything we call modern is implicit in Shaker design. Their abhorrence of ornament in room design preceded the idea later expounded by Walter Gropius, master of the Bauhaus movement, that form follows function. They even had formalized laws that forbad cornices, extraneous mouldings, and embellishment if not necessary to the function required.
Consider just a few of the Shaker inventions: clothes pins, cut nails, the circular saw, condensed milk, the washing machine, the tongue-and-groove machine, the lumber drying kiln, and countless other life-enhancing devices. They were the first to install running water and electricity in their buildings and were always keen to adopt technology that represented improvement.
When it came time to add a kitchen at the end of my 1840 home, it seemed natural to pull together a few of those elements that might emulate their particular aesthetic while complementing my recently-restored home.
I made a list of probable inclusions in the design. Clean lines and surfaces. White walls with a plastered finish or facsimile thereof. A period-pine floor. A nice, naturally soft worn finish to the woodwork that’s easy on the eyes and easy to live with (maybe blue, a grey blue) that chaste look they got with their cabinetry. Simple. Organized. Beautiful. And, oh yes, a large working fireplace. Perhaps a wood ceiling. A few choice pieces of antique furniture of course of course. A stone country sink. Lots of fenestration-the Shakers loved lots of natural light, as do I. Six over sixes should be the right scale. I’m beginning to get the picture. How about Dutch doors? One on each side of the room for nice summer breezes. It may seem like a long list but it’s not. It’s less. And less is more. Right? They thought so. Me too.
I may not go so far as to hang my chairs upside-down on the wall but I may have a long sawbuck table with benches as they did. I have an idea for the exterior that may work. Being by habit practical, the Shakers sometimes took the economical approach to siding a portion of their home. They shingled. No expensive clapboard needed. No paint. I like it. And it would complement the rest of the house that’s covered in wooden ashlar. I think. A granite stone chimney up the gable end would be nice. That puts the fireplace at the end of the room. Cozy.
It was the fridge in the corner that set the order for the cabinet configuration. It seemed a strange idea at the time but it’s worked out surprisingly well. Situated between the sink and the cook-top, that triangular plan that is so practical works. And it maximizes the available space. I thought of ways I might take advantage of those triangular corners on either side of the fridge. Since I like to bottle my own wine, I designed wine racks on one side and a small pantry cupboard on the other. Even a couple of cute drawers squeezed in. I’m thinking like a Shaker now.
I had originally planned for a six-foot square island but when I found the ten-foot sawbuck with benches it seemed a better choice since benches are among the most essential furnishings of the large Shaker dining areas. Believe it or not, the pair of benches and table came separately but had the same engine-red paint, popular with the original Hutterite builders. I thought, too, that the island would have sectioned the room somewhat; however, the table integrated the service end and the fireside end while keeping the room open and engaging. And there have been many an occasion when that long table has served well.
I could almost see two benches of Shakers enjoying a fine country-grown feast as guests at our dinner parties. It’d be quite the dance too, no doubt.
One way to add colour and charm to a country kitchen is to display favourite dishes on open shelves or drying racks rather than stacking them away in closed cupboards. I didn’t particularly need upper cupboards and didn’t think they’d contribute much to the design. I quite like the clean, spaciousness I ended up with accented by the severe lines of the hood vent over the cook-top. I’m still trying to decide on those very Shaker peg-racks on either side of it. Might work. We’ll see.
There was an interesting development regarding the stone countertop. The stonecutters insisted on measuring it for themselves even when I supplied them with what I assured them were accurate drawings. Weeks later they arrived to install the stone counters. They didn’t fit. They had to re-cut huge pieces all over again. Their expense, of course. Whatever happened to ‘measure twice, cut once?’ I don’t think those guys ever heard of the Shakers.
When it came time to choose appliances, I knew I needed those that were not only efficient but also good-looking in a sparse, clean sort of way. When I found the Miele cook-top in a timeless design, I had a good start. It looked good on the Kingston limestone counter. The Miele dishwasher worked well, too, in that the controls were on the inside of the door panelling.
I didn’t want to see them. I was about to buy a very expensive tap set when I found an old set in a salvage yard for about a tenth of the price. They looked like they’d been there since the Shakers last shook it up.
The hood vent, however, was a bit of a problem. I couldn’t find one on the market that was suitable, so I designed one and had it built around the conventional interior works. I remembered an antique drying rack I had once and was able to design another from memory. It works quite well, being so simple. However, in retrospect I wouldn’t have made it as long; there’s no need to have it longer than the sink beneath it. Those drying racks are a must for me. I’m too lazy to even fill the dishwasher. Fortunately, the space between shelves in the pantry cupboard could house the microwave. Out of sight is sometimes a good design option.
Today, Shaker design is interpreted in many ways. Even the gentlest embrace of its principles can give a home a quiet semblance of beauty and order. As unintentional as it may have been, the Shakers have left us an appealing design philosophy that feels as right in the modern era as it did long ago.
“Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow.” Ann Lee, the leader of the first Shakers to leave Manchester, England in 1774 and travel to New York state.
Sidebar: About Colour
Considerably joyful work was required to come up with the colour for the cupboards. It has a three-stage operation basically, not counting the final rubdown. First I gave the woodwork a heavy red wash. Then, when dry, a latex coat of a dark green-blue that seemed way too dark at the time. It was the next coat that did the trick. I mixed three of the Homestead House Paint Company’s milk paints; white, black, and soldier blue into a watery wash and wiped it over everything, a door or a drawer at a time. You shouldn’t get ahead of yourself. And remember the proportions so you can mix the same colour each time in small batches. Those milk paints dry very quickly. And about as quickly as it was put on, it had to be wiped down before it dried, and ragged off as smooth as possible. Once I had the timing down, it left a beautiful, soft worn denim sort of look that I was after. You could polish the edges, too, to let the under-colours come through where you would see natural wear. Give it a try. It’s fun to do. Remember: joyful work!