<em>Covered box</em> (1850-1900) (part)<br />

Maple (Acer sp.), Pine (Pinus sp.), copper<br />
(a-b) 9.6 x 23.8 x 17.2 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2020<br />
2020.26.a-b<br />


Unworldly Goods


Can you imagine if all designs made today, be they furniture, drawings or everyday objects, bore the markers of religion? Before the arrival of modernism in the late nineteenth century, religious influence in design was common practice. Here, we look at specific designs in the NGV Collection made by the Shakers and the Amish, religious sects originating in the United States, to explore the influence of religion on design, and how these designs influence modernists today.

Without religion, would there have been any design at all? Some of the earliest archeological fragments we have from 3000 years ago – pottery shards, inscriptions on bones – are already freighted with symbolic and perhaps divinatory significance. Ancient Greek Classicism, whose harmonious proportions and ornamental vocabulary formed the basis of European design for centuries, was originally intended to glorify the gods. The same is true of Gothic architecture, Persian carpets, Chinese bronzes, Mesoamerican stone carving. Everywhere you look in design history, you will find the influence of religion. Everywhere, that is, until the advent of modernism in the late nineteenth century. The first pervasively global style, it was not untouched by spiritual concerns. For many of its proponents, abstraction was a means of channelling higher powers. But when it came to design, modernism was fundamentally secular in character. Instead of exalting the divine, it celebrated the here and now, the logic of the social order and, above all, the rational minds of its own creators.

Given all this, it’s a curious fact that when the modernists themselves looked back at design history, one of the things that attracted them most was the work of the Shakers– though a more extreme religious sect you would be hard pressed to find. Like much else about early America, the Shakers were an English export, arriving in 1774 just on the eve of the American Revolution. Their leader was a visionary prophet named Ann Lee (1736–1784). The daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, she had endured an unhappy marriage and lost several children during their infancy, experiences that likely contributed to the intensity of her beliefs, and in particular, her total disavowal of sexuality. This was the most infamous precept of the Shakers (they were also pacifists, communists and sometimes vegetarians), and it meant that they could only grow through conversion, not by raising families. Initially, though, this proved no obstacle to their success. After all, they believed the world would be ending soon; Mother Lee had foretold it. To them it made perfect sense to direct all their energies into readying themselves for the Second Coming, building their own version of a New Jerusalem.

It is impossible to understand the objects the Shakers made without recognising their radical ideas about the very nature of reality and their own place in the divine order. As Chris Jennings has written in Paradise Now, his engaging history of nineteenth-century utopianism, ‘Shaker carpenters and masons believed that they were working with heavenly blueprints’. 1 In practice, this led them to a quite literally supernatural level of orderliness. Everything in a Shaker village was to be, as the sect’s early leader Joseph Meacham (1742–1796) put it, ‘plain and without superfluity.’2 Sidewalks were neatly paved, at a time when this was rare even in large cities. Dress was practical, modest and clean. Firewood was cut on a sawmill and stacked with geometric precision. A similar impulse is seen in a set of Shaker boxes in the NGV Collection, made in graduated sizes, each painted in monochrome colours. Each is built from slim bent bands, which would have been formed over an oval block, rather like a hat. Each band is carved at its end into swallowtails and tacked down to maintain its shape. So expedient was this construction method that one Shaker craftsman, Delmer Wilson (1873–1961) of the Sabbathday Lake community in Maine, managed to make no less than 50,000 such boxes over his lifetime. We can’t be sure exactly what each box in the NGV Collection was used for, but we do know that such boxes were used for storing a range of household and workshop storage purposes, including seeds, dried herbs, spices, powdered paint pigments, buttons, sewing thread and nails.

<em>Covered box</em> (1850-1900) <!-- (view 1) --><br />

Maple (Acer sp.), Pine (Pinus sp.), copper<br />
(a-b) 3.5 x 9.3 x 6.4 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2020<br />
2020.20.a-b<br />


Wilson was a prodigy of productivity, but he was not alone – the Shakers’ mania for organisation made them extremely effective manufacturers. They never took a day off, and divided their labour with factory-like efficiency, while enjoying relatively pleasant working conditions. Mother Lee had famously enjoined them with the motto, ‘hands to work, hearts to God’, and they took her at her word. Brother David Rowley (1779–1855) was a diminutive cabinet-maker, just shy of five feet tall, who lived and worked at the New Lebanon community. He understood his own craft as divinely inspired, recalling in his spiritual memoir:

While plaining [sic] at my bench, my whole soul was enshrouded with a mantle of tribulation; but I kept on at my plaining, & soon it appeared to me that my plain began to go with less physical force or exertion on my part than usual. It moved more & more easily until it seemed that I had to hold on to the tool, in order to keep it from moving itself. 3

Such experiences made him so passionate for austerity that he once carefully replaced the brass pulls on a chest with simpler wooden ones, ‘which were deemed, through spiritual communication, to be more appropriate to Shaker life’.4

A rocking chair in the NGV Collection, made at Brother Rowley’s community in New Lebanon, New York (though not necessarily by his hand), exemplifies the results of this perfectionism. In its basic form, it is hardly innovative. Ladder-back chairs had been made in the United States since the early colonial period in the seventeenth century using exactly the construction used here: turned posts topped with finals, gently curved back rungs, straight stretchers, a rush upholstered seat and slat rockers, all assembled with simple mortise and tenon joints. What elevates the Shaker version of this design is its unadorned elegance. It’s as if a bigger, uglier chair has been subjected to some magical force, compressing it into an ideal version of itself. Notice the fine attenuation of the upright posts supporting the arms, and the modest, graceful curvature of the arms themselves. Notice, too, the rhythm of the overall form, the way that the slender cage made by the double stretchers is echoed by the quartet of rungs climbing the back. Even the tilt of the chair communicates an attitude of serenity: it is weighted so that it leans back just slightly on its rockers when at rest.

Given the other-worldly resolution of such objects, it is perhaps unsurprising that modern artists and designers have made such a cult of the Shakers. They have been willing to overlook the sect’s millennial fervour, and instead focus on their seeming anticipation of the law of ‘form follows function’, the modernist credo, which dictated that objects should be distilled to their optimal utilitarian condition. Several recent exhibitions in New York City and nearby have emphasised these connections. Simple Gifts, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016, marked the fiftieth anniversary of a major acquisition of Shaker objects: the collection of pioneering scholars Faith and Edward Andrews. But the show also explored Appalachian Spring (1944), a collaboration between composer Aaron Copland, choreographer Martha Graham and set designer Isamu Noguchi, which took its inspiration from the Shakers. And it also included paintings by Charles Sheeler, who depicted artefacts and buildings made by the Shakers, marshalling a precision equal to the subject. Line and Curve, mounted at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut in early 2019, explored the Shaker furnishings collected by the abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly. And Concerning Superfluities, a thoughtful exhibition at the Essex Street gallery in New York City, brought the conversation right up to the present, juxtaposing Shaker objects with works by artists such as Robert Gober, Agnes Martin and Rosemarie Trockel.5

These ambitious projects take place against a backdrop of more general interest in the Shakers. Their furnishings and objects are often taken as inspiration by contemporary designers, who hail then as the ‘first minimalists’.6 There is risk of caricature here, as if the Shakers were ancestors of the home organisation guru Marie Kondo, rather than fierce-minded zealots who challenged every aspect of conventional society. Appreciation of their stylistic achievements can obscure the larger history of the sect. Not for nothing did one of the last surviving Shakers, Sister Mildred Barker (1897–1990), remark, ‘I almost expect to be remembered as a chair or a table’.7

This distortion field has also surrounded other American separatist communities. This is particularly true of the Amish, whose quilts have become much-loved and emblematic examples of American folk art. It is easy to see the attraction. Consider a quilt in the NGV Collection that hails from Holmes County, Ohio, the epicentre of that state’s Amish population (today about half of its residents belong to the community). Executed in a cruciform variation on the popular ‘Ohio Star’ pattern, its grid of repeated motifs is disrupted by irregular colour shifts. This may well have happened because the maker was using up fabric scraps, but it results in a highly dynamic composition. Simpler bar quilts, which were the most common patterns in the earliest period of Amish production, have been singled out for their strong pictorial affinities with 1960s hard edge abstraction by figures like Frank Stella, or the more recent paintings of Sean Scully.8 Look closer, though, and a world of detail emerges: the simplicity of bold abstraction floats free from a field of finely stitched ornament.

Sean SCULLY<br/>
<em>Queen of the night</em> 2008 <!-- (recto) --><br />

oil on canvas<br />
(a-b) 279.7 x 356.0 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation with the assistance of Greg Woolley and NGV Contemporary, 2011<br />
2011.348.a-b<br />
&copy; Sean Scully

The Amish have been quilting since the late nineteenth century, but their work was only discovered by collectors and curators in the 1970s, at which point a vibrant market emerged, particularly for vintage examples. This story is well told by the scholar Janneken Smucker in her book Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon. She describes how a hastily arranged show at the Whitney Museum in 1971, Abstract Design in American Quilts, started a craze for all things Amish. Families who had held on to their bed coverings for generations were often happy to sell them, feeling that they were out-of-date, ‘dark and ugly’. Smucker relates a telling anecdote from the collector David Pottinger (a plastics manufacturer by day) who was in the habit of touring through Indiana and buying antique and newly made quilts ‘directly off people’s wash lines’. On one occasion he was considering a potential purchase, and the Amish farmer who was holding the quilt up for inspection asked to trade places with him. The farmer squinted across the room at it, then said, ‘What the heck am I looking for?’ 9

It’s a good story, partly because it raises a thorny question: are the ideals of a community always more valid than those brought from the outside? One might want, instinctively, to say yes –particularly these days, when concerns about cultural appropriation are on the rise. We are all being encouraged to be increasingly sensitive to the ‘intellectual property rights’ of vernacular artists, and rightly so. Yet it’s hard to believe that anyone would be better off if Amish quilts were bundled under beds, rather than put on display in museums, or if Shaker chairs had been broken up for firewood when their makers passed away. This issue stands in unusually high relief in the case of the Shakers, for while countless people admire their designs, there are now only two members of the sect still living, both in Sabbathday Lake, where Delmer Wilson once made his boxes. The community was closed to new arrivals years ago, so when these survivors are gone, the Shakers will pass at last into history.

There they will join many other spiritual groups from the past. To walk through the galleries of any comprehensive museum, the NGV included, is to realise a final irony about religiously motivated design. Most religious traditions aim to transcend the temporal, earthly realm. But all belief systems are constantly shifting, and eventually they disappear entirely. It is ultimately the material legacies they leave behind that serve as their greatest monuments. These artefacts testify to a truth as significant as that taught by any religion. Spiritual conviction may be ephemeral, but it leads to some of the most wondrous things under the sun.

Conservator Insight
Suzi Shaw, NGV Conservator of Frames and Furniture

The longer you observe this Shaker rocking chair, the more its details reveal a refinement of its design to the bare necessities of practicalities and comfort – the subtly curved back slats, bevelled edges of the arms, acorn-shaped turned finials and a lightness of structure. Made by the New Lebanon Shaker community in New York state around 1840–50, its turned maple wood components boldly display scribe lines used in its construction to indicate where mortices were to be cut or parts to be joined. While not original, the paper rush seat is old and printed paper scraps are visible between the cords. The short rockers enabled gentle rocking by the elderly in their retiring rooms. Copper and timber pins have been used to secure the top back slat to the uprights, the rockers to the legs and the arms to the uprights. The chair exhibits the remains of an old wood stain and shellac finish, and evidence of a useful life.

<em>Rocking armchair</em> 1840 <!-- (view 1) --><br />

Maple (Acer sp.), paper rush<br />
115.7 x 56.0 x 70.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2019<br />
2019.633<br />


Skye Firth, NGV Senior Conservator, Textiles

These two Amish quilts within the NGV Collection, generously gifted by Annette Gero, are layered from a backing of cotton fabric, cotton or wool wadding and a pieced woollen or cotton top or ‘face’. Constructed from both hand stitches and fine treadle sewing-machine lines, the pieced patterns on each quilt follow a number of known Amish guidelines, using plain weave fabrics with no discernible pattern or print. Friendship, c. 1910, quilt, shows the frequently used star piecing pattern, while the Joseph’s coat, c. 1910, quilt exhibits an expertly sewn repeated bar pattern. Amish quilts are often constructed by a group of quilters, decisions on fabrics and patterns made collectively within each community. While the piecing is quite utilitarian, which is common for many Amish quilts, the quilting stitches within each piece show off the quilters’ skill and creativity. Quilting patterns such as ‘feathered vine’ and interlaced ‘cables’ are common but the Friendship quilt shows an expertly hand sewn ‘cross-hatch’ pattern combined with an offset petal pattern providing a border. These are intricately executed and show an amazing attention to detail. The placement of the quilting stitches, contained within each coloured section of the pieced tops, show the quilters’ careful planning and artistry.

UNITED STATES, Holmes County, Ohio<br/>
<em>Friendship, quilt</em> (c. 1910) <!-- (front) --><br />

cotton (machine-pieced, hand-quilted)<br />
176.0 x 205.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Annette Gero through the Australian Government&rsquo;s Cultural Gifts Program, 2019<br />
2019.468<br />


UNITED STATES, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania<br/>
<em>Joseph&rsquo;s coat, quilt</em> (c. 1910) <!-- (front) --><br />

cotton (machine-stitched, hand-quilted)<br />
205.0 x 200.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Gift of Annette Gero through the Australian Government&rsquo;s Cultural Gifts program, 2019<br />
2019.471<br />



This essay was commissioned for Issue 21 | NGV Magazine Mar–Apr 2020.



Chris Jennings, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, Random House, New York, 2016, p. 54. 


Joseph Meacham quoted in John Gerald Shea, Making Authentic Shaker Furniture: With Measured Drawings of Museum Classics, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 1992, p. 34. 


Jerry V. Grant & Douglas R. Allen, Shaker Furniture Makers, Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA, 1989, pp. 1721. 




The title is taken from the Shakers’ Millennial Laws, published in 1821: ‘Concerning Superfluities not Owned. Fancy articles of any kind, or articles which are superfluously finished, trimmed or ornamented are not suitable for Believers’. 


Rima Sabina Aouf, ‘Shaker style is back again as designers celebrate the first minimalists”’, Dezeen, 1 March 2017. 


Seymour J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992, p. xiii. 


See, for example, Florian Hufnagl, Diamonds and Bars: The Art of the Amish People, Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, 2007.


Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013, p. 62.