When the Bauhaus met the Shakers

Susan Jackson Keig

“What thou seest, write it in a book ....”
Revelation, 1-11


ere it not for the large number of ledgers, books, documents, journals, letters, diaries, hymnals, and covenants written by the Shakers, from the time of their arrival in America, August 6, 1774, and continuing still — often in precise and elegant penmanship — their beliefs and lifestyle would not be so clearly known and studied world-wide today.

The Biblical passage, cited above, is found inscribed on the flyleaves of manuscripts in the largest collection of Shaker at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. It was begun in 1911 as many of the Shaker communities were dying out, and is prized of over 12,000 items. Another large collection is owned by The Filson Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

By coincidence, in the 1960s, Ray Pearson at the Institute of Design in Chicago — known in Europe as the Bauhaus — and I both became interested in collecting Shaker, especially photographs, (My college mentor had been Bauhaus-educated, and later I had attended and taught at ID also.) We found a parallel in the functional design of the Shakers and the mantra “form follows function” of this German school of design formed over 80 years ago — the Bauhaus.

Ray wanted to show his students in Basic Workshop courses actual Shaker pieces, in addition to photographs, while I was concerned with the need to collect and preserve an important visual part of uniquely American heritage. Photographs have always been critical to me as a graphic designer, and the fact that the Shakers espoused photography as a way of explaining their beliefs and attitudes made the collecting another form of communication between the past and present.

Ray and I were welcomed and received cooperation from the few existing Shaker communities and at unrestored sites. Ray went down to South Union Village in Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, and assisted in the yearly festival, Shakertown Revisited. Although the Shakers had left South Union in 1922, still buildings and artifacts remained at this major Shaker site that Ray researched and photographed. By having his own darkroom he was able to print his own pictures — and then he recorded them meticulously in notebooks. We met often to exchange prints and compare notes.

Ray went East and, together with Julia Neal, South Union historian/author, and the Hancock Village at Pittsfield, MA, collaborated on the first comprehensive collection of historic photographs of Shakers and their villages: The Shaker Image, published in 1974. Ray’s archive included tintypes, daguerrotypes, snapshots, studio portraits, and stereopticon views.

Meanwhile, at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, about 18 miles from my home near Lexington, a restoration had been underway since 1961 by a non-profit educational corporation formed locally by concerned citizens.

During the early years when these two Kentucky sites were seeking funds for restoration, I sensed that having visual images such as photographs would be helpful in picturing the villages to the public.

So I engaged a Winnetka photographer, James L. Bollard — he was at a publishing firm where my husband worked and I was at a design firm — also on the North Shore. Jim went with me at various seasons to record with his Hasselblad the terrain, existing structures and the interiors at these Shaker locations. This formed the beginning of a collection of both contemporary and historical photographs — mainly of Pleasant Hill and South Union — that I wanted to share and, as a designer, also utilize in various formats for the benefit of the two sites.

James L. Cogar, the first curator at Colonial Williamsburg, had returned to Kentucky to become president of Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, Inc., and to undertake the restoration. With his encouragement, and of James C. Thomas, then curator, I designed and produced, in 1970, the now widely-seen calendar, presently in the 32nd edition for 2002. With a design recalling Shaker arch motif, it pictures historic and contemporary photographs of the Believers, their architecture and lifestyle at this particular village. Most of the photographs are from my collection now numbering more than 3,000 items — majority are of Pleasant Hill.

A year later in September of 1971, in an exhibition titled. “The Shakers — a Lifestyle by Design” at the Ryder Gallery in Chicago, I hung photographs of Pleasant Hill on sconces from Shaker pegboards, made in the village for this show. Ray Pearson loaned Shaker chairs, stoves, and cabinets to simulate a Shaker interior, in this first-ever viewing of such rare pieces as inspirational drawings from his collection.

The success of this exhibition led to special showings of the photographs — both at Pleasant Hill and South Union — along with the sconces, as both villages had still-existing pegboards.

Following the Chicago showing came a number of articles in newspapers and magazines: The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Louisville Courier-Journal, Interiors, Design & Environment, Print, and twelve pages in Communication Arts on my Shaker collection and other design work. Plus speaking engagements at Yale University, and Virginia Commonwealth University where photographs were shown along with tapes of Shaker spirituals.

Of all the experiments in communal living in the settling of America — and there were over 100 of such groups — the Shakers with their singular way of life were the most successful, productive and longest-lived. For those who belong to this religious sect one of the major tenets of Shaker belief is that its members live, literally, in heaven on earth. This means creating a world that is orderly, clean, and free of distraction. Every building they erect, every object they make —down to its shape, color and function — is designed to be heavenly. As the Trappist monk and scholar Thomas Merton 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.” In Shaker villages, perhaps more than in any other place, God was in the details, and the details had to be perfect. (Merton was a member of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and knew Pleasant Hill.)

Reference to the Shakers' sense of design continues today. You find the words “Shaker­ inspired” applied to innovative products such as the American Standard ad in House & Garden, October, 2001, that introduces their new Enfield line with the heading “Inspired by Shaker design. Not necessarily their lifestyle.” (Enfield is the name of Shaker villages in both New Hampshire and Connecticut.)

Of the once 19 major Shaker Societies and 10 short-lived societies, only one at Sabbathday Lake, ME, founded in 1794, is still active — but with only six members. (150 years ago the Believers numbered 6,000 in all the villages.) Still adhering to the tenets of the order — celibacy, pacifism, confession of sins, equality of sexes and races, communal sharing of goods, and separation from the world (of greed, lust and competition), they service and reach out — allowing a British documentary to be made titled “I Don't Want to be Remembered as a Chair,” and also a compact disk “Simple Spirits” with the Boston Camerata, on the rich legacy of Shaker chants and spirituals.

In the 70s I had the opportunity to work as a designer with Dr. Thomas D. Clark, author, eminent historian, and professor at the University of Kentucky who first inspired my interest in history. First, on his book Pleasant Hill in the Civil War , and later on Pleasant Hill and Its Shakers. Projects with the Chairman of the Board, Earl D. Wallace, followed in quick succession, such as a report on archaeological investigations of 1975-78, titled The Shaker Mills on Shawnee Run. The work was funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. as Eli Lilly had become interested in the restoration of Pleasant Hill and had visited the site.

Heather Bone, curator of the American Museum at Claverton Manor, Bath, England made a trip to Pleasant Hill to ask for assistance in completing the Shaker room in that museum. I furnished a special photograph to fill an entire wall, of the spiral stairway in the Trustees' Office, designed by the young and talented Shaker, Micajah Burnett. A visit to the museum followed in 1974.

England had been the place of origin of this dissident Protestant sect — first called the “Shaking Quakers,” then Shakers, due to a vigorous form of dancing when they gathered to worship. Because of persecution, eight followers, led by an inspired Mother Ann Lee, embarked for America in 1774. Here the sect was known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, with communities from Maine to Florida, and as far west as Indiana.

In 1972, the museum in Munich, Germany, Die Neue Sammlung contacted me to be a part of a team on a major Shaker exhibition with architect/designer Karl Mang of Vienna, president of the Austrian Institute of Design. His earlier work, “The Hidden Sense — ­Functional Design in the 19th Century” was on the subject of the Shakers and Thonet bent wood furniture. (At the world Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Shakers saw the Thonet bent wood process — shortly after the bent wood rocking chair appeared.)

This 1974 German exhibition, titled “Die Shaker,” was accompanied by a book Die Shaker in German, French, and English. The exhibit traveled to major museums throughout Europe and to Romania, then behind the Iron Curtain. Shaker design was universally admired and appealed to a wide audience. (This was evident in other exhibits held in Japan.)

In 1973, The Simple Spirit, a pictorial study of the Shaker Community at Pleasant Hill, by James C. Thomas — then curator and now president — and Samuel W. Thomas, historian, was produced by the Pleasant Hill Press. It provided a much-needed comprehensive account of the site, now a National Historic Landmark. The book was accompanied by a first-ever map of the village’s land, location of Shaker Landing on the nearby Kentucky River, and placement of some 260 original structures in this relatively self-sufficient community.

The heightened awareness of Shaker at this time encouraged me to seek grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kentucky Arts Commission, for a major exhibition at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY. With additional funding from two generous patrons, Spanjer Bros. of Chicago and the Beckett Paper Company of Hamilton, OH, a Bicentennial event was conceived for 1976.

One of Ray Pearson's students at the Institute of Design, Bill Hafeman, made a film “The Shakers: An American Experiment,” which was shown at the opening of the exhibition, titled: “Two Shaker Villages: South Union and Pleasant Hill, Ky.” Music was provided by recordings of Shaker spirituals. The show not only had photographs, historic and contemporary, of both South Union and Pleasant Hill, but was accompanied by pieces of Shaker furniture from both sites, which added immensely to the show's interest as Kentucky Shaker furniture had not been exhibited before and differed from Eastern Shaker furniture in certain unique ways, as use of native woods such as cherry and walnut.

At the request of the American Institute of Graphic Arts I hung a selection of photographs from this exhibit in their New York gallery, also in 1976.

The success of the show at the Speed Museum led to a request for a state-wide traveling unit in Kentucky, designed to be easily assembled and dismounted. The Guild of Shaker Crafts of Spring Lake, MI worked with me to fabricate this exhibit that traveled the state for three years under the auspicies of the Kentucky Arts Commission.

Ken Burns, filmmaker, had become interested in the Shakers at this time and one of his very first films was on this subject — followed by other films on historic themes that have become his special interest. He wrote this about the book titled The Gift of Pleasant Hill, by the distinguished landscape photographer, James Archambeault: “... a reminder of the authentic spirit of the Shakers and their important message to live simply, to care for others, to put your absolute best into everything you do ....” Dr. Thomas D. Clark wrote the introduction for this 1991 book of striking color photographs, which I designed.

One of the more recent interpretative projects at Pleasant Hill is the exhibit in the restored 1866 Timber Frame Stable at Shaker Landing on the Kentucky River. Using historic photographs from my collection to tell the story of trade and business acumen of the Shakers on this important waterway, I designed the panels to blend in with the ambience of the structure, an experience in itself.

All this gives meaning to collecting — ways in which a collection can be used and shared with others — as seen through a designer's eyes.

Trade With the World's People: A Shaker Album, booklet and packet written and designed by Susan Jackson Keig, on the Shaker Villages of South Union and Pleasant Hill, KY. Sponsored by the Beckett Paper Company for the Bicentennial, 1976, and selected for inclusion by the Library of Congress. Calligraphy by John Weber, photographs by James L. Ballard.

Pictured on Shaker calendar for 2002: sketch of Shaker Brother Micajah Burnett, (1791-1879), architect, engineer, surveyor and mathematician at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY, by a contemporary, the naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, professor at Transylvannia University, through whose courtesy it is used.

Meeting House, built in 1820, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY, pictured on book accompanying exhibit "Die Shaker," at Die Neue Sammlung, Munich, Germany, 1794. Photograph by James L. Ballard, collection of Susan Jackson Keig.

Poster of J.B. Speed Art Museum exhibit, Louisville, KY, in 1976, depicts meeting room, Centre Family House, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY. Designed by and in collection of Susan Jackson Keig. Photograph by James L. Ballard.

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