Everything created by Shakers was done with the understanding that it reflected a commitment to earthly perfection. For Shakers, work and worship are synonymous. As a result of the Shakers’ constant interaction between the physical and spiritual worlds, the standards for objects they created in this world were set by standards of the next. The furniture, woodenware, textiles, and spiritual arts that have come to represent them in today’s world stand as testimony to the Shakers’ dedicated quest for perfection on earth.
Familiarly known as Shakers because of their distinctive dancing rituals, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing has been one of the most compelling religious and social movements in American life since its founder, Ann Lee, arrived in New York with eight followers from England in 1774. Dedicated to pacifism, celibacy, and gender and racial equality, Shakers numbered 6,000 members in nineteen communities just before the Civil War; today, one community continues at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.
The Shakers’ initial efforts to create domestic settings reflected the teachings of their founder whose admonition, “Do all your work as if you had a thousand years to live, but as if you knew you would die tomorrow,” guided them. The objects created in Shaker community are physical evidence of their pursuit for spiritual perfection. Shaker craftsmen came from the world, so certainly were aware of and comfortable with many design elements prevalent there. Shaker design, however, reflects a distinctive application of an internal cultural aesthetic, and they made every attempt to avoid the wastefulness and pridefulness they perceived as prevalent in worldly domestic design.
An eye toward perfection brought together for display some of the best examples from the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, objects that demonstrate Shaker principles of faith, community, industry, and design.
An eye toward perfection appeared at the Winter Antiques Show in New York, NY, January 18-27, 2008. The exhibition was sponsored by the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and the exhibition design was by Stephen Saitas Designs. All photographs of the installation by B. Docktor.