Shakers and the Birth of Modernism. (Really?)

Really. “Form follows function” and “less is more” are phrases commonly associated with the modernist movement of the Bauhaus. But did you know where the German Bauhaus of the 1920s got their inspiration? From the eighteenth-century American Shakers and their famous Shaker furniture.

The Shakers and their famous Shaker chairs and Shaker chests also directly inspired the Danish Modern movement known for its simplicity, purity of form, and grace.

Who are the Shakers? Of the hundreds of early experiments in communal living in colonial America, the Shakers were the most successful and enduring. The Shakers started in England as a dissident Protestant sect known as “Shaking Quakers” for the wild form of dancing they practiced during intense prayer sessions. Under persecution from the English, eight of the faithful fled to America in 1774 led by Mother Ann Lee.

Mother Ann Lee 1736-1784

Lee and her band of merry followers settled in New England but quickly spread, establishing Shaker communities from Maine to Florida and as far west as Ohio and Indiana. Surprisingly, Shakers are celibate, so they can only perpetuate and thrive by recruiting new adult members and by taking in orphans, a practice that was eventually made illegal in the 1960s. Children were not raised as Quakers but were allowed to choose when they turned 21. Those who chose to leave were first given money, tools, and a trade. That trade was usually furniture making.

“Hands to work, hearts to God” was Ann Lee’s motto. And when those hands weren’t working the fields, they were busy building houses and the furniture with which to furnish them.  Mother Lee established a strict set of maxims including “simplicity is the embodiment of purity and unity”, “beauty rests in utility”, “that is best which works best” and, most famously, “God is in the details.” (150 years later, Mies van der Rohe paid homage to Lee, with a wry spin, when he coined the phrase “The Devil is in the details.”)

The Shakers strove to create an environment that was clean, orderly and free of distraction so they could worship with pure hearts and minds. This meant a blanket rejection of materialism, vanity, and decoration for decoration’s sake. This is reflected in their furniture, notable for its lack of adornment.

An 1840 Shaker table from Enfield.

Shaker style furniture was also seen as innately American in its rejection of anything European or British, and demand among non-Shaker colonists was strong in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. The Shakers began selling their furniture to the public in 1789 and continued to do so until 1947. Most Shaker style furniture made today is mass produced by mainstream furniture makers. New pieces by the rare remaining Shaker artisan sell for many thousands of dollars.

This Shaker chair from 1840 is priced at $6,500 from John Keith Russel Antiques.

Popularity of Shaker style furniture surged again after the Civil War as a rebuke to the over-adornment of the Victorian age with its excessive ornamentation and gingerbread. The Shakers introduced a catalogue in 1870, which they distributed nationally, that offered chairs, tables and other pieces in a variety of sizes.

Shakers are often mistakenly thought to be luddites, like the Amish, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Shakers have always embraced technology and welcomed any innovation that saved time, which they believed belongs to God. Their inventions numbered in the hundreds, many of which we still take for granted today including the flat broom (replacing bundled sticks), the circular saw, the common clothes pin and the rotary oven. They were the first to sell packaged seeds, the first to popularize photography, the first adopters of electricity and automobiles. They even invented the automatic washing machine with powered agitators which they exhibited at the 1876 World Exhibition in Philadelphia. They became wealthy selling their washing machines to hotels all over the world.

It was at that World Exhibition that the Shakers saw Thonet’s remarkable bentwood furniture from Vienna and quickly adopted the technique, integrating it into their furniture designs and famous Shaker boxes.

So the next time you see a Shaker chair, think of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and scholor who said “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was built by someone capable of believing that an angel might come down and sit on it.”

Auction Results Suffer in a Tough Economy

CHICAGO, October 7, 2008.  Like the orchestra playing on the deck as the Titanic made its final descent, Wright Auctions of Chicago gamely held their Modern Design auction of mid to late twentieth century furnishings and art in the midst of the global economic tsunami that’s engulfing us all.  (Dow down 500 that day!)  With even the rich feeling the pain of evaporating investments, some diehard collectors practiced retail therapy by opening their thinning wallets to pry loose their last few dollars.  (Brother, can you spare an Eames LCW chair?)

After a quick analysis of the 417 lots by such stalwarts as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Norman Cherner, Florence Knoll, George Nakashima, Edward Wormley, Hans Wegner, Milo Baughman, Jean Prouve and others, here’s how the results broke down:

    117 lots sold within their projected ranges (28%)

    157 lots did not meet their reserve (37%)

    49 lots sold below their ranges (12%)

    94 lots sold above their projected ranges (23%)

Of the 157 lots that did not sell, many were assorted tables and chairs by George Nelson, George Nakashima, Vladimir Kagan, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Florence Knoll, Finn Juhl, Gio Ponti and, surprisingly, various pairs of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs reasonably priced between $5,000 and $7,000.

A Swan Chair by Arne Jacobsen estimated between $4,000 and $6,000 sold for a conservative $4,800 – considerably less than prices as high as $7,200 I’ve seen in recent years.

Of the 94 that sold above their projected ranges, there were a few notable pieces that hit it way out of the ballpark:

A chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the MoMA Organic Design Competition which was expected to get between $15,000 and $20,000 sold for a whopping $50,400.



An Eames DAR shell chair on an “”Eiffel” base that was expected to get between $500 and $700 got a remarkable $5,400.



A pair of Eames DKR wire chairs with “bikini” slip covers that were projected to get $500 to $700 roped-in $3,000.



An Arredoluce 3-arm floor lamp in all-white that was estimated at $5-7,000 got $15,600 (while a nearly identical Arredoluce lamp with blue, red and yellow shades got a mere $8,400.)


An Eames ETR “surfboard” coffee table that was projected to get $3-5,000 sold for $24,000!  Kowabunga, dude!



And the surprise of the evening was a 1937 bakelite radio by Isamu Noguchi for Zenith that was expected to get $3-5,000 and instead sold for an eye-popping $22,800!  (And it doesn’t even play FM!  What’s that about?!?)


Readers of my posts on the Eames Lounge 670 and Ottoman 671 will be interested to know that a vintage rosewood model by Herman Miller sold for $3,120 – within its projected range of $3,000-$4,000 but way below its historic high of $7,000.  And an early Noguchi coffee table in ebony with a rare green-glass top was a bargain at $1,920, a bit shy of it’s projected range of $2,000-$3,000 and far less than the $6,600 the same table got at the same auction last year – perhaps a sign of the times.

So how does this compare to years past?  There are too many variables to make a definitive apples-to-apples comparison but Wright’s October 2007 Modern auction raked in $3.9 million (an average of $7,876 per lot) to this year’s $2.1 million ($5,155 per lot) – a stunning 45% drop.  And whereas 37% of the lots sold for above the projected range in 2007, only 23% did so in 2008.  Unsold lots increased from 21% to 37%.

Of special note, Barcelona chairs that sold above estimates for $7,200 a pair in 2007 had no takers at all in 2008 despite a minimum reserve of only $5,000.  An Edward Wormley 6329 sofa that sold for three times its estimate for $14,400 in 2007 got only $4,800 in 2008.  And a Comprehensive Storage System by George Nelson that sold for a whopping $36,750 in 2007 (estimated at $5-7,000) got a mere $8,400 in 2008.  Ouch!  On the other hand, anything Eames such as assorted DCW, LCW and RAR chairs all increased in value by up to 450% from last year’s prices.

A logical conclusion one could draw from these results is that with so many of the lots by Charles and Ray Eames selling for far above estimates this year and for far higher prices than a year ago, anything by Eames has been a stellar investment for those lucky sellers.  Nakashima, Nelson and Kagan collectors?  Not so much.  But times change and tastes shift so better luck next time.  To see the entire results for yourself, visit the Wright20 site here.