What Is Shaker-Style Furniture?

Known for its austere, clean lines, Shaker furniture is an American style that emerged from a religious movement known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly referred to as the Shakers, in the 18th century. Shaker craftsmanship was based on design principles of truth to materials and form follows function, creating an enduring aesthetic with a long-lasting appeal. 

What Is Shaker-Style Furniture?

Shaker-style furniture is simple, clean-lined, austere, primarily wooden furniture that was first created in the United States in the 1800s by the religious movement known as the Shakers.

Perhaps the most iconic and recognizable piece of Shaker furniture is the Shaker-style chair, both the original ladder back style and 20th century modernist  interpretations that remain a staple of Scandi style interiors today. 

Shaker style furniture
 Heritage Images / Contributor

History of Shaker-Style Furniture

The history of Shaker furniture dates back to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known as the Shakers), a religious movement founded in England in 1747 before spreading to the U.S. in the 1780s. The Shakers were celibate Protestants with a feminist attitude toward religious leadership who built their own furniture, household objects, and houses. They considered the act of creation itself a sacred undertaking and a mindful act of prayer. 

While their life and avocation was based around Christian virtues, honesty, hard work, and an embrace of the small and simple rituals of daily life, the Shakers were innovators in their own right, responsible for inventions such as the broom, clothespin, and circular saw. They built a reputation for quality that allowed them to sell their work to outsiders to fund their unconventional lifestyles.

Shaker furniture is an important part of American design history, and today there are museums scattered around the country devoted to preserving Shaker history. Shaker art, architecture, and craft is also a subject of museum exhibitions and held in important collections such as at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Thought of by some as the first minimalists, the Shakers have all but died out in the 21st century, but their most enduring legacy might be the timeless, austere furniture that continues to inspire today’s designers and home decorators. In fact, Shaker style served as inspiration for and was in many ways an early model for the modernist movement that would emerge in the 20th century, which also valued simple forms, was inspired by the natural world, and believed in form following function. The Shaker movement didn’t end up having staying power as a religion, but the furniture has never really gone out of style and continues to inspire designers today.

Shaker style furniture
 Heritage Images / Contributor

Key Characteristics of Shaker-Style Furniture

Despite having a simple appearance, original Shaker furniture and crafts showed extraordinary attention to detail and were known for a high standard of quality.

Authentic Shaker-style furniture is the definition of simplicity, streamlined to the point of austerity, devoid of flourish or decoration, and built to last. Shaker-style chairs, tables, rocking chairs, dressers, wicker baskets and oval decorative boxes, like Shaker-style architecture, have timeless forms and a hand-crafted, well made appearance. 

Inspired by natural materials, Shaker furniture was originally built with inexpensive, local, lightweight, natural materials such as pine, maple, and cherry woods as well as wicker. Shaker-style wood chairs were originally created to be lightweight enough to hang on pegs on the walls. Hanging chairs on walls might be a whimsical style choice today, but in centuries past it served a more practical purpose: to make it easier to clean the floors, and to provide storage for extra seating that didn’t cannibalize precious floor space when not in use. 

Shaker style furniture
 FOTOGRAFIA INC. / Getty Images

How to Decorate With Shaker-Style Furniture

Shaker-style furniture is easy to incorporate in a range of home decor schemes, from country style farmhouses to modern minimalists interiors.

Iconic Shaker pieces such as the ladder back rocking chair are crowd pleasers and would look at home on just about any front porch.

Shaker-style furniture works well in juxtaposition with contemporary pieces, to add a sense of history and warmth to even the most contemporary minimalist interiors.

One of the most popular ways to decorate with Shaker style is the widespread use of Shaker-style bathroom and kitchen cabinetry. With simple recessed panel detailing, Shaker-style cabinet doors are slightly more decorative than flat-front cabinetry, but the timelessness and simplicity of the design means they work well in modern design schemes as well as more transitional rooms.

In terms of cabinet pulls, original Shaker turned wood knobs are more likely to be replaced with modern hardware in a brass or gold finish. And while Shaker furniture has traditionally been stained or painted in neutral colors, today Shaker-style cabinetry painted in dark matte shades such as deep blue, slate gray, or soft black will create an on-trend look rooted in centuries of American style. 

The UK’s Livingetc reports that Shaker-style cabinetry is no longer just for the kitchen and bathroom, but the foundation for a new trend: Shaker-style bedrooms, with walls of Shaker-style closets and built-in storage that echo what so many now have going on in the rest of the house. 

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