As a child, our family visited Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky every once in awhile, usually for lunch or dinner. There are many photos of me and my sister as little girls outside the various buildings there. It was also a popular place for elementary classes to visit on field trips – for touring, but especially for watching the sheep shearing and candle making and weaving. My mother always had funny stories about her class trips there over the years. You would be surprised at how many third graders would hit the floor during the sheep shearing. My memories are a little fuzzy about the place, but I do remember the looms and the dining room and those amazing stairs. Luckily, no fainting spells for me.
Shaker Village (or Shakertown as we always called it) is a National Historic Preservation Site, and was the location for a group of Shakers – a religious community that started in the New England area, but later spread through the Ohio Valley and into Kentucky. I’m sure I learned a lot about it on those various tours, but the thing that stuck with me – from those tours and also from a book on Shaker furniture that we have someone around here (where? I thought all the books were unpacked!) – was the symmetry of the places, and the simplicity of the architecture, the furniture and the tools. Shakers were celibate, and the men and women occupied separate halves of the spaces (which explains why they aren’t really around anymore). It was an egalitarian society, and this balance is reflected within the spaces they built and lived in.
Today, the word “Shaker” has become an increasingly ubiquitous part of our design language – usually meaning of a simple style and craft. If you’ve spent anytime looking at cabinets than you are familiar with the Shaker style door – a five piece door consisting of flat rails and stiles with an inset panel.
I also have very clear memories of the Shaker pegs along the walls of the buildings. I cannot recall if the Shakers were known for their cleanliness, although it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that such a simple, ordered existence would naturally demand a higher level of attention to tidiness. The pegs that lined the walls were functional – they held candles, brooms, simple mirrors, and even upturned dining room chairs between meals – an extremely practical way to properly clean up any untoward messes at the base of a table. At this point I delve into complete speculation here – but I also see those pegs as a symbol of hospitality – an extra chair for dinner or a place for a visitor to hang his hat.
When, as a community, you do not procreate, you must be somewhat hospitable to newcomers, right?
Last week we entertained a nice sized group at our house – right around fifteen or sixteen people. Two days later (luckily at a venue outside of our house) we helped to entertain a crowd of almost three times that size. And all of this got me thinking about hospitality, and how to make a home simple, and functional, and welcoming to others.
We’re making good progress on the dining room, and we have tossed a few ideas around for the room and for other rooms and other plans down the road. I was laughing with a friend of mine today about the enormous size of some houses we had recently seen – with kitchens and dining rooms (and a gaggle of other “support rooms” for the kitchens and dining rooms) that seemed scaled for a small crowd of people rather than a family. I am (and always will be) a firm believer that you should design for the everyday, not the occasional day – and if you do it, and do it well, then the rooms can transform as needed to be as large or as small, as clean or as messy, as life demands them to be.
I see modern Shaker influences all the time, and I think it’s because they got something right (speaking of architecture here, and not pacifism or their abolitionist views or their engineering fortitude or their radical hospitality – as important as those things might be).