A look at another enduring American furniture style
I read with interest Stickley’s announcement that production of Nichols & Stone dining sets has resumed, this time in Vietnam. One of the industry’s more hallowed names for quality solid wood furniture in styles that, while they aren’t Shaker per se, embody the same simplicity, honesty, craft and straight-ahead utility that the Shakers embodied and propagated in the mid-18th century and long after.
Previously, we have re-visited midcentury modern and, separately, Bauhaus. Here we celebrate the Nichols & Stone tradition in the context of a Protestant religious community that came over from England in August 1774, settling first in Manhattan and spreading throughout the Northeast and as far south as Florida. Eschewing ornamentation and anything unnecessary or artificial, Shaker furniture has never gone away, but in an uncentered 21st century world, it has renewed urgency in its embrace of order and balance.
One of my greatest joys in covering case goods in the 1990s was learning furniture styles and histories and, based on that knowledge, trying to spot and on occasion name trends as the tried and true were updated and adapted for modern life. For this education I counted on people such as Tom Tilley, Bill Faber, Tom Keller, Fred Schubert, Sr., John Jokinen, Randy Austin and, of course, Al and Aminy Audi at L. & J. G. Stickley. My “teachers” all were patient and gracious with their knowledge, making pre-market in High Point a reliable master class; I took lots of notes.
From some of those now decades-old notes, I have the Shaker motto: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” And work they did, because Shaker influences can be found in abundance in furniture, art, architecture and textiles, to name only a few categories.
Formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the Shaker movement began in England as an offshoot of Quakerism. While it has largely died out as a religious community, its values and its furniture abide. In a world in which our institutions fail us, our global challenges defy solutions, and our sense of unity and harmony seem ever so fragile, the simplicity and integrity for which Shaker is known are uncomplicated cornerstones. This is furniture that can be counted on, moved about, passed down and – gasp! – even repaired.
Of course, to speak of mostly furniture in relation to the Shakers is to risk a materialist spin on what was a religious philosophy and lifestyle that resisted materialism and consumerism.
Thus endeth the confession.
Nichols & Stone expansion
Stickley rolled out four new dining sets from the Nichols & Stone design library at market in High Point in April, calling them some of the solid wood line’s most popular configurations in its 130-year history. The rollout ended a three-year absence for the storied line in Stickley’s showroom, at least as shown in whole.
Nichols & Stone is a perfect complement to the Mission, Arts & Crafts, and Beaux Arts stylings in the Stickley catalog, one that represents another invaluable taproot into the history of America and its furniture traditions. The “greatest hits” collection joined existing pieces in bedroom, occasional and home entertainment, and fans of the erstwhile Massachusetts-made line will recognize all of them.
Stickley acquired the name and intellectual property in 2008.
The timelessness of the Nichols & Stone line, like the broader Shaker tradition to which it owes much of its DNA and appeal, resonates with many of Stickley’s customers, who are among the most loyal in the industry.
“There is a vast archive to pull from, and . . . we will add to it and . . . rotate some things out and add some freshness to it,” Edward Audi, president of Stickley and Alfred and Aminy’s son, told Home News Now.
For the Shakers, who, according to a report in the New York Times, are down to just two practicing congregants, hallmarks of their faith included communal living, service to God, celibacy and a belief in human perfectibility. The Shaker principles of simplicity, hospitality, craft excellence and integrity are, of course, salient again after a pandemic shut us all indoors for interminable lengths of time. Celibacy and human perfectibility? OK, not so much. But, for a consumer culture weary of throw-away crap, brand confusion and dubious or at least ambiguous manufacturing origins, Nichols & Stone is right on time.
Can I get an ‘Amen’?
Of particular relevance to the home furnishings industry is the Shaker belief that every object that congregants put their hands to is or should be a vessel of worship. Spare and yet at the same time elegant, a Shaker chair is best understood as a reach toward heaven, toward an ideal. The uncomplicated appeal of, say, Shaker’s ladderback rocking chair, woven seating, and solid maple or solid cherry tables and dressers speak to a spiritual longing for something we might call home. The root of nostalgia, nostos, is the Latin for “home,” after all.
Shaker furniture balances form, function and proportion in part by avoiding unnecessary inlays, carvings, hardware and “features.” It is the Helvetica of furniture styles: It’s difficult to come up with a way Shaker styling could be improved upon.
By treating the artifacts of their “hands to work” and, therefore, as vessels of worship explains an approach to craftsmanship that avoids anything to do with pretension, false pride or deceit.
The famous ladderback chairs trace their origins to the New Lebanon Shaker community of New York, and I’ve seen some of them in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The Met has one of the world’s better furniture exhibits anywhere, on one of its lower floors.) The chairs star in the Met’s “Shaker Retiring Room,” a vignette that recreates a dwelling house from 1818.
Bridge to modernist styles
The same beguiling simplicity that explains Shaker’s enduring influence is evidenced in Scandinavian and, in particular, Danish furniture design, as well, which is one reason I am drawn to Danish furnishings, as well. Try Googling images of Danish churches to get a sense of the connection I am talking about.
But the industry owes more to the Shakers than style. They invented both the circular saw and the flat broom. Where would furniture manufacturing be without either?
When the Shaker movement peaked, communities could be found up and down the East Coast and as far west as Indiana. Celibacy would seem to ensure extinction, but the austere looks and bedrock values continue, often at auction at eye-popping prices. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Stickley, both with respect to its main lineup and for the Nichols & Stone re-issues: They put these great styles within reach of many if not most American households. Manufacturing them in Vietnam enables tactical pricing.
Furniture designer Brian Persico told the Times that Shaker “speaks to a much simpler life, which everybody strives for but is completely unattainable.”
We all are pilgrims of a kind. Nostalgia, therefore, is a powerful consumer impulse, as retro baseball jerseys, biopics of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and Rolling Stones reunion tours demonstrate. Never has this been more true than during pandemic, when home became basically the only option. Shaker is a quieting whisper amidst all the shouting and demonizing, and a safe haven from the hounds of haste.
As the hymn puts it, “’tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where I ought to be . . . when true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; . . . till by turning, turning we come round right.”
As the song proves, by turning, turning, this religious community’s adherents proved to be movers and Shakers.