​Shaker furniture: Simplicity is all

Simple, practical, and easily-adaptable design was a hallmark of the religious group known as the Shakers, as Richard Schlesinger tells us.(This story was originally broadcast on May 31, 2015.)

At the Hancock Shaker Village in far western Massachusetts, they have always kept things simple and clean. It's a museum now, where visitors can see classic furniture designed centuries ago by the Shakers.

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The lines of the furniture are as clean as the rooms it inhabits.

"They weren't thinking of it as being beautiful, but they were thinking of it as being functional," said curator Lesley Herzberg. "That streamlined, simple -- what we now say as beautiful -- design is a result."

"They didn't mean for it to be beautiful?" asked Schlesinger.

"They didn't. It's beautiful to our eyes, but they would never have referred to it as beautiful."

These no-frills, no-flourishes chairs may be the best known legacy of Shaker design.

The Shakers came to the U.S. from England and established themselves as a Christian sect in the late 18th century. Their design style followed their lifestyle: it is simple and, above all, practical.

A blanket chest made in the 1800s, for example, has an extra drawer on the bottom.

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It was added because the Shakers didn't like to waste space, said Herzberg. "And so if there was an additional way to use the space more efficiently, the Shakers would find it."

They were an innovative group that came up with new ways to solve old problems.

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"As is human nature, everyone wants to tip back in their chair -- it's true! -- and so the Shakers did the same thing," said Herzberg. "But what the Shakers figured out was in order to preserve the chair and also to preserve their floors, if you added this tiny little design element to the back posts of your chairs, you could preserve both that back post and your floor."

Invented by the Shakers -- "and now seen on most classroom chairs for kids," said Herzberg.

In their heyday in the 19th century, there were roughly 6,000 Shakers in nearly two dozen from Maine to Kentucky. Their founder was a woman known as Mother Ann. They lived communally, so cleanliness became, if not next to Godliness, at least really close.

"Mother Ann once said, 'There is no dirt in heaven,'" said Herzberg. "And so keeping your living quarters and your eating quarters and your work quarters clean was very important. And so that's why you have things like the Shaker built-ins so you don't have to clean on top or beneath them."