When Shaker meets Bauhaus
IT can be an intriguing adventure to examine the 19th-century Shaker and the 20th-century furniture of the Bauhaus school. You discover how the forms conceived by these disparate groups shared a purity of design, in each instance inspired by an unwavering devotion to a cause. Neither the simple practicality of Shaker designs nor the geometrics encouraged by Bauhaus can be regarded merely as a series of thrifty spare lines or as rigid factory-like creations. Instead, although worlds apart in origin, both are suffused with warmth.
The Shakers were one of the more successful groups that experimented with communal living in the 19th century. The movement was introduced to this country from England by a dynamic woman, Ann Lee, who added celibacy to the sect's emphasis on a clean, spare life style with only the utilitarian as material accompaniments.
Removed from worldly ways within their rural communities, the Shakers developed self-reliance, respect for workmanship, and a facility for innovation. The laundry building, for example, in Canterbury, New Hampshire - one of the few remaining examples of a Shaker community - includes mechanical devices that were far ahead of the time.
The Shaker movement peaked between 1830 and 1850. During the Civil War years it faded away largely as a result of the Shaker principle of celibacy, and an inability to attract new members. Although the movement has disappeared, the furniture the industrious Shakers created remains a classic and vital design force.
Initially made to suit their own needs and also produced as a source of income, Shaker furniture is a clear example of the sect's tenets. It is first and foremost functional. The striking purity of line was achieved by a combination of clean simplicity, inspired by late-18th- and early-19th-century American country furniture, and Shaker beliefs that stressed perfection of craftsmanship and shunned ornamentation.
The result is a remarkably graceful yet strong form enhanced by the natural richness of maple, pine, walnut, or cherry - whatever was closest at hand.
Typical Shaker furniture designs included the spindleback chair for apple sorting - created with short legs to prevent stooping; beds on wheels to enable them to be effortlessly moved and, so, ease sweeping; or dining chairs with backs made low enough to slide under a table while dishes were cleared. Above all, the honesty of Shaker design with its reflection of deeply held convictions offers a sense of peace and serenity.
ARCHITECT Walter Gropius's scope encompassed the spectrum of design. His visions coincided with the post-World War I bolt to freedom from bibelots, curves-over-curves, and other strictures of Victoriana. (It is interesting to note that Gropius, a pioneer of the era, was not represented at the important 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts D'ecoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where Art Modern - later known as Art Deco - surfaced, signaling a final split with the ornate past.)
In 1907, as an eager young member of the German Werkbund - a group of industrialists, labor people, and artists who strived for functional form - Gropius designed a brick factory for one of their exhibits. The design attracted international attention as an improved concept for buildings of this type.
In 1910, Gropius opened his first architectural office. But it was in 1919 that he took his most significant step. Gropius organized and began direction of the Weimar Bauhaus, properly known as the Staatliches Bauhaus at Weimar, an industrial art laboratory and school. It is now considered the most influential in the creation and dissemination of the modern style with emphasis on the functional.
Throughout his professional life, Gropius's credo was that his ``intention is not to introduce students to a style but to a method of approach.''
Unlike William Morris, who, earlier, had argued for simplicity by urging that the machine be replaced by the craftsman, Gropius had great respect for machinery and appreciated the varied accomplishments it made possible. His longtime motto was ``art and technology - a new unity.''
Gropius did, however, respond positively to William Morris's ideal of the unity of art and life. And from a machine-age viewpoint, he admired the standardization of machine-made products devised by Henry Ford.
To achieve an absolute purity of line and a focus on functionalism, Gropius swept away the sticky sweetness of Art Nouveau's curves and tendrils. And, like the Shakers, he was influenced by other designs of the past: the 18th-century Windsor chair, the spindle-back Danish chair of the same period, the simplicity of late-18th- and early-19th-century Italian Chiavari side chairs and, perhaps, Thonet as well.
It was at Bauhaus that Gropius inculcated in his students the need to bridge the gap between the arts and also to unite industrial products with art. Together with his peers, the Cubists - Mondrian, for one - he stressed aesthetic fundamentals and the need to create forms that were geometrically pure.
The theories advanced by Gropius at the Bauhaus were almost religiously interpreted in the furniture designs of his students, who sometimes served as assistants in creating furniture for Bauhaus buildings. Among the students, Marcel Breuer, who at one time headed the Bauhaus furniture shops and later became a close associate of Gropius in this country, stands out. His early geometric, constructivist designs were in direct response to Gropius's teachings.
Breuer is best known as the innovator of stark tubular metal furniture that, in earlier years, was shaped of nickel-plated steel. The first of this style was introduced in 1925. It was a chair in a minimal-curve geometric form with a fabric (probably canvas) seat, back, and arm rests - a clear representation of Breuer's Bauhaus-inspired contention that ``... any object properly and practically designed should `fit' in any room ... as would any living object, like a flower or human being.''
It seems only appropriate that, during the hedonistic 1920s and 1930s when the Bauhaus school of design was having its most profound effect, Shaker furniture, too, was experiencing a new day of glory. Recognized as an art form of simple beauty, the ingenuous style that some believe influenced Gropius, it was eagerly collected, written about, and exhibited for all to see and enjoy.