For more than two hundred years the American Shakers have lived in simplicity and. . .unity in communal families. They liberated women, welcomed all races. . .perfected their quiet arts and crafts, worshipped God as Mother and Father, and expressed religious joy and love of each other by dancing and singing. (The Shakers and the World’s People by Flo Morse, University Press of New England, 1987)

On November 16, 2021, the AIANY Custom Residential Architects Network and the Shaker Museum of Chatham, New York co-hosted a panel discussion at the Center for Architecture on the early history of the Shakers and how the diversity of their communities may have impacted their cultural production and their architecture.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Shakers, as they are most commonly known, were a unique and self-governed faith organization that formed intentional communities for living, working, and praying throughout the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Shakers are famous for their minimalist colonial architecture, furnishings, and objects, their striking music, poetry, and dance, as well as their numerous inventions in the fields of agriculture and home goods. For the most part, Shaker communities were farming and manufacturing settlements, where they produced highly-prized, internationally known, Shaker-branded agricultural and home goods—the prized Shaker seeds, brooms, baskets, boxes, chairs.

Dennis Wedlick, FAIA, Co-chair, AIANY CRAN, Principal Emeritus, BarlisWedlick Architects, explains: “Each household were given their own impressive dwelling where about sixty lived together, dormitory style, sisters divided from brothers, with female and male elder family members presiding over them. Each was given a house name, such as the North Family, the Center Family, the South Family, the Church Family.”

A gushing Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was allowed multiple visits with the Canterbury Church Family in 1842, provided a firsthand account:

September 27 was a fine day, I set forth on a walk. . .for the Shakers, distance three and half miles. . .They are in many ways. . .interesting, but at present have an. . .importance as an experiment in socialism. . .Moreover, this settlement is of a great value. . .as a model-farm. . .Here are improvements invented. . .which neighboring farmers see and copy. (Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Shakers and the World’s People by Flo Morse, University Press of New England, 1987)

Program participants at the Center for Architecture sought to explore the question: Did the diversity that was nurtured within these intentional communities drive these innovations? Guest speakers—designers, artists, historians, and curators—shared their experiences and considered the impact and legacy of the historic homes of the Shakers on their own work.

Jerry Grant, Director of Research at the Shaker Museum, with Maggie Taft, Preceptor at the University of Chicago, reflected on how architecture and product designs correlated with the Shakers’ utopian vision of home.

Ladies & Gentlemen Studio co-founders Jean Lee and Dylan Davis discussed “Furnishing Utopia,” a design workshop of their own making inspired by the legacy of the Shakers. While Lee and Davis were originally unfamiliar with the Shakers, the chose to learn about them by creating their own contemporary version of a Shaker community. They would gather with fellow designers of various backgrounds for three or four days at a time, living and working together in the countryside where the Shakers lived and worked, and imagining new utopian home designs inspired by whatever they came upon. And what they came upon was a connection with the Shakers’ longing for community:

When into union our spirits do run,
We find that our heaven on earth is begun.
                                             – Shaker Hymn

The program also featured a live conversation with choreographer Reggie Wilson of Fist and Heel Performance Group. Celebrated by The New York Times for his “sprawling movement pieces that fold history into the present,” Wilson’s “Power,” which was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2022, explores African American worship and Black Shakers dance. His presentation explored why these self-selected families of artisans and artists from diverse backgrounds—white, biracial, and black—continue to inspire the work of artists today.

Wedlick concludes: “As we go forward, we will continue to wonder: Did the diversity and inclusion, embodied in their home, drive the Shakers’ design and cultural innovations—the architecture, objects, narratives and dance, work that designers and artists around the world are stilled fascinated by? We hope this program will inspire and encourage others to visit Shaker historic sites and the Shaker Museum of Chatham, New York, to see for themselves.”