Shaker Design: Out of this World (Book Review)

book cover

A review of

Shaker Design: Out of This World Edited by Jean M. Burks

The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God by Amy Stechler Burns and Ken Burns

The Art of the Shakers by Michael Horsham

The Shaker Image by Elmer R. Pearson and Julia Neal

Shaker Design by June Sprigg

Some usability and user-experience professionals may lament the plethora of unaware or uncaring managers, marketers, engineers, executives, journalists, even users. Would that we were enmeshed in a society that valued more universally high achievements of product design that delivered usability, usefulness, and appeal. Oh, it would be heaven!

But wait, there was actually a society that valued exactly these characteristics in the products it produced: the Shakers. The Shakers are famous for their simple, clean buildings, furniture, clothing, and artifacts. What is most compelling for the usability/user experience professional communities, is that their implements,  furniture, and products were extremely well made, “modern” in their design simplicity, of harmonious proportions, beautiful to behold, and easy to use. They had no schools of design and no professional usability experts in user-experience design, evaluation, or strategy. How did they accomplish their achievements?

For those not familiar with this group, it would be an eye-opening experience to read one or more of the books I have assembled for your consideration. Some of them are old, one is quite recent. I shall focus on the most recent and easily available book, Shaker Design: Out of this World edited by Burks. These two volumes are visually exuberant, offering large, full-color photos of some of the most outstanding examples of Shaker design. The Burns book, The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, produced after the 1984 film documentary of the same name, provides more history, photos of notables of the Society, and some architectural photos. The Pearson and Neal book, The Shaker Image, primarily an historical analysis, shows only black-and-white photos or people and architecture. The Horsham book,  The Art of the Shakers, while providing some history, divides its color figures among objects, architecture, and people.

Burks notes that the Shakers embraced order, structure, and hierarchy. Order permeated their daily rituals and the daily objects by which they ate, slept, cooked, and secured food. They created a clear and functional hierarchical structure to administer to all of their spiritual, domestic, and commercial needs.

In their buildings, they believed in proper ventilation, bathing, and sanitation. For example, a specific design of exterior windows allowed the insertion of a strip of wood to promote air circulation. Infirmaries were well stocked with medicine and equipment. Their progressive healthcare practices led to their surviving much longer than their outer-world contemporaries. One mid-nineteenth century commentator on the Shakers wrote that they were strict utilitarians; their first question was: would it be useful? A noteworthy testimony, indeed, to a society that promoted usability and usefulness.

The Shakers also encouraged progress. They were quick to adopt new techniques and mechanisms to the manufacture of their own products and those they sold to the (outer) world to earn money. Today, one of the last active communities sells its herbs on the Internet.

The Shakers were always searching for ways to simplify their lives and to streamline their workflow. They promoted gender equality in leadership and responsibility, as well as promoting racial equality, pacifism, and condemnation of capital punishment, all radical innovations for the time. They were inventive and shared, for the most part freely, their inventions with the world. The were the first to invent and, in some cases patent, wrinkle-resistant fabric, condensed milk, a water-powered washing machine, and some believe, the circular saw.

As Burks notes, they took the reality of human behavior into consideration when making design decisions. They pioneered what we would call today “user-centered design.” Today we would call them innovative product designers, yet with a difference. For them, work and worship were inseparable; work was a form of worship. This approach may seem strange and distant to people today, but the quality of their designs, their fit to both earlier times, as well as to ours, gives us pause to consider what we do, and why. There are many lessons to be learned from Shaker creativity, innovation, usability, usefulness, and appeal. I would strongly recommend taking a look at what they accomplished, and how.

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