Three Shaker Tables, 1800-1840. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Friends of the American Wing Fund, 1Three Shaker Tables, 1800-1840. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Friends of the American Wing Fund, 1966.)
Our world defines us by our appetites. Shopping, for example, is not merely useful; it is our weekend entertainment. We purchase happiness, and so our happiness depends on our salary. If you need evidence (I hope you do not), simply sit through a series of commercials on prime-time television, or the ten minutes of advertisements which preface your film at the cinema this weekend. The happy home, so we are told, is the one that has precisely the correct espresso machine. The happiest person is whomever eats the ramen noodles which create the happiest smile. Choose your favorite purchase. Happiness is guaranteed—unless you choose nothing at all, or unless you do not have the economic power to choose.
Last week, I saw these three wooden tables while browsing through the Shaker collections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Shaker” is the name of a small religious group from England, who flourished in the United States during the early to mid- 19th century. The Shakers shared their possessions and lived as simple farmers, building their own houses, and making their own tools and household objects. They denied the body, and prohibited sex. Thus, they could have no children of their own, and so they took in orphans, and raised them in common. There were many Shaker communities, but their design aesthetic is remarkably similar even across wide geographic separations. These three tables made between 1800 and 1840 speak of a world in which there was a direct, intimate connection between needs and possessions.
Each table is small, portable, and suited to a limited range of use. The first table is a candle stand which could serve in a bedroom or living room alike. The second table is a seed-sorting stand. Notice the wooden trim at the table’s edge, which blocks seeds from falling to the floor. The table’s height is adjustable, so we can imagine a farmer either sitting by a fireplace at home, or standing in a barn, sorting good seeds from bad. We can see the intended use of both the first and second tables, yet the aesthetic is different. The candle table’s wine-bottle support column bleeds into spare, elegant legs. Both tables are created for utility, but the first combines utility with a sense of domestic beauty.
The Met’s museum curators also call the third table a "candle stand," but like the seed table, this third table has trim which prevents rolling objects from falling to the floor. This table also has a drawer for storing candles and matches. Here too, we have elegant, seraph-wing legs. This third table is versatile and beautiful, yet not luxurious. Reflecting the Shaker religious preferences, this table is demure and quiet, not opulent. Its beauty springs from the fact that it corresponds to absolute human need, but meets the need not with absolute simplicity, but with an artisan’s eye for grace.
Grace is not the only logic in the design. In middle school geometry, you learned that three points define a plane. Notice that each table meets the floor at exactly three points. Most floors in this era were created by uneven wooden boards, but these three tables can never feel unstable on such a floor. These tables fuse need and grace with the practical habits of people who live off the land.
These tables remind us of a time when human behavior produced needs, and objects were built in direct proportion to those needs. Whatever objections I have to Shaker theology, I am glad for this: they found dignity in the human. These simple domestic objects reveal their commitment not only to work or simplicity, but also to human life itself. Design consultant Alan Moore calls this attitude optimism: “Those who would lavish care on a chair, a basket, a clothes hanger, or a wheelbarrow clearly believed that life was and is worthwhile.”
In sharp contrast to the Shaker optimism, we now live in an age of anxiety. We have not needs, but rather anxious desires produced by profit-driven industries. The advertisers for these industries have learned to exploit human vanity, our lust for being cool, refined, and worldly. Above all is a spirit of anxiety. We fear being seen as backward or culturally behind, and the only medicine for our anxiety is consumption. Spending money and expanding our appetite has become our dominant spiritual practice .
Shaker theology was not orthodox. But their designs live on in houses and museums, calling us to look at the world anew. These tables ask us to distinguish need from lust, to seek the beautiful rather than the trendy, to trust substance over image. We humans share this with the Shakers: our objects are connected to our spirits, whether we are aware of it or not.