In August 1774, eight intrepid Shakers landed in Manhattan from Manchester, England, seeking a home where they could practice their fledgling religion in peace. Nearly two and a half centuries later, their presence has returned to the town; specifically, to a storybook stretch of Commerce Street in the West Village.
The Commerce Inn, which opened in December, is Shaker cuisine that meets early American tavernas with a 19th-century oyster house twist. Its white-walled dining room is an exacting homage to the Protestant religious group, whose signature furnishings and decor rejected adornment and emphasized simplicity, utility and honesty in craftsmanship. Chef-owners Rita Sodi and Jody Williams have spent years leaning on old Shaker recipes and cookbooks as inspiration for her dishes, which include spoon bread, oxtail and cake. with ginger.
“Our goal is to really honor what they were doing,” said Ms Williams, 59. She and Mrs. Sodi, 60, who are partners in life and in business, paid close attention to the hospitality of the Shakers and how they welcomed strangers into their communities.
“When people close to the Shakers were attacking their fields or robbing them, what did they do in return? They just grew up to provide for everyone,” Ms. Williams said. gave me chills.”
Like many, the two were first drawn to Shakers through their simple, alluring furniture. But upon learning more about the group, they were struck by its progressive attitudes towards gender, race and sustainability. To develop their concept, they worked closely with Lacy Schutz, the executive director of the Shaker Museum in Chatham, NY, which is currently undergoing a major expansion designed by Annabelle Selldorf, the founder of Selldorf Architects in New York. .
The Shakers were “striving to do something different from the rest of the world,” Ms Schutz said. Both sexes had equal responsibility and mobility within the church long before women could own property and vote, and black worshipers were welcomed decades before the country abolished slavery.
The group’s influence has been particularly widespread in recent times, inspiring not only restaurateurs like Ms Sodi and Ms Williams, but also fashion, art and design designers. As the Shaker anthem proclaims, it’s the gift of being simple, perhaps even more so in these times that are anything but.
“People I’ve spoken to, designers, makers, people like Rita and Jody,” Ms. Schutz said, are currently drawn to aspects of Shakerism because of “a desire to communicate a belief system and a level of integrity.”
“We look to the Shakers to find what we are collectively looking for,” she added.
Craftsmanship as a cult
Officially called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the religion began in England as an offshoot of Quakerism. Its adherents were given the name Shakers because of an early form of worship that involved spontaneous, ecstatic movement.
Based on the principles of community life, celibacy, and a life lived in service to God, Shakerism flourished under the leadership of its charismatic founding leader, Mother Ann Lee, an illiterate visionary who preached receiving messages from God that these principles were the only way to salvation.
The tenets of the religion also include the belief that every object worshipers put their hands on is a vessel of worship. Recognized for innovations such as the circular saw, the flat broom and the seeds sold in sachets, the Shakers, whose members call themselves brothers and sisters, have developed a particular know-how for woodworking and cabinetmaking.
They first used pieces to furnish their growing communities, then as a way to support them by selling items to consumers, marketing their “Shaker Made” brand as synonymous with well-made and durability.
At their peak, the Shakers had a footprint stretching from Maine to Florida and as far west as Indiana. Their furniture became valuable to collectors in the early 20th century when it began to be appreciated as one of the first uniquely American design styles. Around the same time, the Shakers’ ranks began to dwindle.
“The appeal of Shakerism is not an easy sell,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, 65, one of two faithful practitioners at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. Founded in 1783, it is the only active Shaker community in existence. Its other resident, Sister June Carpenter, is 84 years old.
Emily Adams Bode Aujla, designer of the Bode menswear line, is part of the Shaker Museum’s Maker’s Circle. The group of artists and designers, Katie Stout and brothers Simon and Nikolai Haas, come together to discuss the influence and history of the Shakers in videos filmed for the museum’s YouTube channel and at events such than the Design Miami show.
“Their commitment to craftsmanship was unparalleled,” said Ms Bode Aujla, 32. While its quilt-patch separates have a handmade aesthetic quality reminiscent of Shaker garments of the past, it’s the ethos behind them that draws more directly from Shakerism. To reduce waste, she mainly makes clothes with deadstock – unused fabric – and archival textiles, much like the Shakers, who reuse fabric from used clothes to create doll clothes or mops.
“We created a new way to build a business and invest in particular things, like manual labor and craftsmanship, and be able to continue making unique clothes,” Ms Bode Aujla said. “They’re kind of an icon for that.”
The Shaker spirit was channeled through other fashion designers, including Tory Burch, whose Spring 2021 collection was based on the Shaker maxim “beauty lies in utility” and featured in a show at Hancock Shaker Village, a former community turned museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
Last year Hancock Shaker Village was the location of another show, “Heaven Bound”, which featured the work of Thomas Barger, a sculptor in Bushwick. Mr Barger said the Shakers had a ‘holistic ethic – men and women were treated equally – and that relates to today’. He added that a growing interest in Shaker craftsmanship was clear, citing a reason that has inspired many people to refresh the homes they’ve spent a lot of time in during the pandemic: “People just want to live with beautiful things. “.
For his exhibit, which explored themes of religion and agriculture, Mr. Barger, 30, subverted the austerity of Shaker furniture using elements of it for playful effect, flipping chairs, exaggerating their height and crushing the Shaker baskets with plywood and polyurethane. create sculptures.
Others made less dramatic reinterpretations. In his studio in Windham, NY, Brian Persico, a furniture designer, makes ladder-back chairs and sofas that are heavily influenced by the Shaker tradition. Less rigid than the originals that inspire them, his pieces have a slight roundness that makes them more at home in the 21st century, while drawing inspiration from the outspoken allure of Shaker design.
“It’s so simple,” Mr. Persico, 35, said of the style. “And it speaks to a much simpler life that everyone yearns for but is completely unreachable.”
keep the faith alive
In the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in Maine, which includes a row of white and brick buildings lying on the crest of a gently sloping hill, such a life is very real, if anything but simple. The age and immobility of its senior resident leaves most of the work needed to keep Shakerism alive in 2022 to Brother Arnold, who joined the Shakers in 1978 at age 21 and is now the historian, theologian and ambassador undisputed spiritual faith.
His responsibilities include maintaining the five-story 19th century dwelling house and the 19,000-tree apple orchard; tending to his herd of Scottish Highland cattle and his ever-growing flock of sheep; and running an online and wholesale herb business.
Although residents have always hired outside help, the pandemic has limited their ability to employ as many staff as in the past. “I will be very happy when I don’t have to do all that,” he said. “But for now, that’s what I have to do. God give me the strength to do it.
Although much of his fate rests with him, Brother Arnold is not fazed by speculation about the survival of his faith. “If we do the will of God, vocations will be created. I have seen that confirmed,” he said, adding that there is one person who will most likely join Sabbathday Lake soon.
He always saw the broader fascination with the material history of Shakerism as a way for the world to better understand the Shakers. But too narrow a fascination with possessions obscures the Shaker message of a life lived in service to God.
“A chair is a chair: it’s just there to sit on,” he said.