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Simply SHAKER

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THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SHAKER FURNITURE. By Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks, Abrams, 400 pp., $75

`I WOULD like to be remembered,'' Sister Mildred Barker said in a 1974 interview, ``as one who had pledged myself to the service of God and had fulfilled that pledge as perfectly as I can.'' Then this believer from the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, delivered her crisp punch line. She would not, she added, like to be remembered ``as a piece of furniture.''

Her remark points to the tendency of today's secular society to think of the Shakers above all as fine designers and makers of anything from baskets and oval-shaped boxes to chairs, tables, and built-in cupboards, all of which feature unembellished sensibleness and elegantly useful proportion. The Shakers did make these things, but only because of their primary ``pledge to the service of God.''

The design of Shaker furniture was certainly given solemn attention, not only by the craftsmen, but also by the higher echelons of the Shaker community. They gave serious consideration to new designs, basing decisions on the conviction that ``vainglory or anything superfluous'' were to be avoided. Decorative details were kept to a minimum. The point was that things spiritual were of much higher importance than things ``temporal,'' but that even things temporal should conform to higher ideals. The Shakers had a strong sense of uniformity and suitability in everyday matters. This sometimes extended down to the most particular details, such as varnish on furniture.

Manuscript writings dating from 1790 present such precepts as: ``Plainness and simplicity in both word and deed is becoming [to] the Church and the people of God. Order and conveniency and decency in things temporal.'' And long before the ``form-follows-function'' design ideas of the 20th century were propounded, the Shaker religious communities in the United States were emphasizing ``use'' as a criterion for the design of ``all things.''

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