Just down the road from Lexington, Kentucky, in the part of the state that defines the bluegrass region is a place called Pleasent Hill. It’s as picturesque as you are imagining it. It is home to a place that, though founded in 1805, is perhaps more thoroughly modern than any other – Shakertown.
Founded by missionaries following the word of Mother Anne Lee, Shakertown’s buildings dot the hills like perfectly proportioned, elegant, painstakingly geometric altars to a God with a keen modernist eye. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, aka the Shakers, are undeservedly lumped in with other religious sects like the Amish and the Mennonites as upstanding, faithful, and highly religious people who follow the tenet of separation from the modern world. Given the fact that most people only know about the Amish from the movie Witness and might even vaguely think the Quaker Oats man is Amish, it shouldn’t surprise us that this conception of the Shakers couldn’t be further from the truth.
Shakers were early adopters of electricity and the automobile. They helped to popularize photography and made a fortune by selling their invention – an automatic washing machine with powered agitators – to hotels. While some Shaker practices were seemingly odd – celibacy and speaking in tongues come to mind – they certainly weren’t luddites.
Combined with a deference to a God of love, cleanliness and honesty, and an ethic of “do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow,” the Shaker people were a perfect storm for the creation of meticulously crafted, unadorned, utilitarian, and simply beautiful architecture, furniture and design.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, once 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.” There is a calmness to Shaker design. It is ordered but not austere. It lacks decoration but exudes elegance. Each piece almost has an ethical purpose. A chair has a certain unyeilding “chairness.” You look at a Shaker chair and come to understand that it couldn’t be built any other way. Shaker designed artifacts are the objects casting the shadow in Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Nearly two hundred years after Mother Anne Lee started preaching her gospel, Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function” – a catchy phrase that has embodied how people view the modernist movement in design. Modernism came of age during the turn of the 20th century. A cursory rundown of a history book will tell you it was a relatively turbulent and intellectually heady time. Multiple wars – including World War I – raged on; Darwin, Freud and Einstein changed completely how we think about biology, psychology and physics; and in turn, art and design followed suit.
The advancement in mass production of this era pushed forward the idea that art and design could meet the needs of society and implied this idea that the function of a piece couldn’t really be separated from its form. All of this focus on function and production made things like materials and process hold vital importance.
The irrationality of the Great War combined with the certitude of industrialization spurred on the idea that we humans with our semi-explosion of knowledge could improve upon the world. But rather than taking a more romantic turn in our improvements design veered towards systemization. This led to streamlined design that both spoke to minimalist taste and to easier reproduction.
It seems odd, but as the mechanical scale of things allowed production to blow past human capabilities, design veered towards a human-centric ethic. Pieces were broken down to their base forms, and an austerity of decoration was adopted that both served for easier mechanical production but also a more rational spirit to combat the general upheaval of the moment.
Both the modernists and the Shakers designed around the ideas of gods and machines. One version has humans being the machines of gods, the other inverts the equation and makes humans the gods that control machines. They start at radically different points but somehow meet in the middle.
Fast forward to the here and now. Where do we stand two hundred years later? What does it say that given these lofty and quite literally sacred tenets the movement of modernism has only recently started to manifest itself in vernacular Midwestern culture?
Certainly the modernist ethos has made it’s mark on our urban cores in the shapes of skyscrapers – the true monuments to the form. But what has Middle-America – the “real” America we oft hear of – to show of the influence of “modern” design. Ikea? Target? How is it forms that seem so enduring, forms that were designed to be reproducible get lost in the shuffle of other vernacular forms?
Perhaps with design, or quite possibly everything, we need to think a little deeper about what is influencing us. And maybe we should look over our shoulders every once in a while to see that whoever it is; god, man or machine, is satisfied.