The First Layer Of Our Farmhouse Style – A Deep Dive Into The Modern Shaker Style To Find Our Design Direction (And Trust Me It’s Not Just Peg Rail)
It might be said that the inspirational design process of this house (and this post) is an emotional convergence of my three biggest interests – history, interior design, and religion. It’s a personal journey that ended in my own Oprah/Tom Cruise/couch jumping ‘Aha moment’ with a few extra excited expletives, and even some tears. I also don’t want anyone to get worried when they see the pics in this post. It’s again a part of the design journey and boy is it interesting! This is just the first of two design direction posts so you can come on the FULL ride with me:) Let’s start at the beginning – well, 5 weeks ago…
Five Weeks Ago… What Style Is Our House Anyway??
Early on Anne from Arciform informed me that our house was a classic foursquare (a box with two floors – bedrooms on top, kitchen/living on bottom) with a lot of PNW Craftsmen elements. When I sheepishly asked her if I had to stick to the Craftsmen trim/molding, knowing that we had to replace them anyway, she said ‘nope’. As you can see above this wasn’t some architectural masterpiece by one of the greats. It was a wonderful, sweet house with basic finishes of the era (and a lot of updates not original to the house). So while we wanted it to feel era-appropriate, we could also reimagine it.
Four Weeks Ago: Our Design Mission Statement – “A Good But Average Saturday Morning – 24/7”
Despite my slight attraction towards romantic Victorian everything, this is the Henderson family farm and the foundation and architecture of it needs to feel like “us on an average Saturday morning”, not a Bridgerton corseted ball in the 1890s (that comes in the accessories and novels on my nightstand). We want this house to be full of warm quiet energy, casual finishes, and a lot of soul. We want to feel at ease, relaxed and casual, grounded yet light and airy, with high-quality materials done in a humble way – aka not fancy, but beautifully executed.
Three Weeks Ago: “I Think You Want Shaker”
Like most of you, I THOUGHT I was highly familiar with Shaker style. But after Anne pointed out that all my ideas were very “Shaker” i.e. simplicity, natural light, interior windows, interior shutters, etc I realized she was right.
Two Weeks + 6 Days Ago: Researching The Shakers – A Religious Sect Founded By A Woman
I went on a 3-hour wine-fueled research rabbit hole needing to know more, followed by a documentary and many books from eBay. Now as the foremost historian on the Shaker religion, it’s clear to me that not only was the Shaker style already what we were going for, but there is SO MUCH more to that ‘style’ and religion than you would think. It’s not just peg rails, ladder back chairs, and nesting boxes, friends – it goes deep and far beyond all of that. And for a religion that didn’t value beauty, they sure made some stunning architectural spaces.
Cliff-notes history coming at you. I was riveted so hopefully you are interested, too. The ‘Shaker religion’ (A sect of Quakers that danced erratically, thus the name) was founded by a woman, Mother Ann Lee. That’s right, a religion founded by A WOMAN… but not without a sad origin story. As a girl, Mother Anne had been forced to marry really young in England (early 1700s) and had four children, all of them died – how they passed is not documented. But I think regardless, we can presume that it was tragic, every. single. time. I’m going to editorialize and psychoanalyze a bit by saying that I wonder if the deaths of her children, by way of an older man, led her to later in life leave the Quakers in England to create a celibate religion in America, dedicated to redemption and repentance, but with no sex and no childbirth. Maybe I’m reaching, but what I really want to do is go back 300 years and give that sweet girl a huge hug and say, “that shouldn’t have happened to you. It wasn’t your fault“. Talk about trauma. If that happened to me I would either do the obvious or start a no-sex/no-birth religion, too. But maybe I’m just projecting. We don’t know too much about her – she never wanted to be documented, by photograph, portraiture, or writing, so we know very little about what a special woman she was to have such a legacy, even if the religion was short lived.
A Totally Egalitarian Religion – God Was Both Man And Woman
Perhaps despite, or because of what happened to Anne, the Shaker sect was completely egalitarian. First and foremost they believed that God was dual in nature – both a man and a woman. They believed in social, economic, racial, and spiritual equality (they believed that anyone could talk to God, even non-Shakers). They were pacifists, conscientious objectors to war, and total feminists. I suppose if you take away the power of sex and thus the patriarchy that indeed society would feel more equal. HUH.
They were 100% communal – shared everything, lived together but separately and everyone worked every day for the common good. Men on one half, women on the other – but designed completely the same (i.e. symmetry + equality).
“Hands To Work, Heart To God”
The Shakers believed that the harder you worked, and the better job you did at this work, the closer you are to God. Perfectionism isn’t exactly a trait I value, but they strived for perfection not out of personal performance or wanting credit (not one person signed one chair) but they communed with God through their attention to working hard and doing it right. Not unlike many people of their time (reminds me so much of Mormons, holla) they bought very little and made most everything they needed from scratch.
Fun facts that impressed me:
- A Shaker woman invented the circular saw.
- The Shaker vegetable seeds were what all farmers bought across the US pre-1900 (millions of seeds, all pre-industrialism).
- Shaker furniture is now worth hundreds of thousands, not just because of its rarity but also its handmade perfectionism. It’s so beautiful. They make HIGH QUALITY, perfect pieces, in the most understated way. I’m into it, knowing that I can’t do it myself.
- They even invented the first wrinkle-proof fabric and rain-resistant clothing.
- They turned the round broom into our flat one!
What Happened? Where Are Our Shakers??
The whole celibacy thing really screwed them, ironically and not surprisingly. Growing their population was always going to be a problem without sex. They adopted many orphaned children (also many widowed dads dropped off kids) as well as wayward adults with whom they gave so much love. But once those kids were 21 years old they left and didn’t come back for the religious part of it. And not shockingly, most men weren’t that into the whole ‘never ever having sex again for the rest of your life’ thing. Then the industrial revolution began and the factories made their goods harder to sell as cheaper products were machine-made so their economy collapsed (Ring a bell?). So basically they just died off (I believe there are two alive now). You can see below how near the end there really weren’t any men left.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “If the principals they (the Shakers) maintain and sustain were joined with the practical (having sex) it is destined to overthrow all other religions.” The egalitarian, hardworking, and self-reliant principals are obviously awesome and ones that I admire and would love to lean on for our family (and very much like my upbringing). It was utopian yet totally flawed, not dissimilar to a lot of other religions. But listen, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be an inspiration. Its egalitarianism, simplicity, hard work, and joy are pretty great things to bring into our lives and homes. Whatever this is hits me hard in the parts of my brain that hadn’t felt touched in a while – design-wise. I think I need to go back to church. 🙂
Fine – It’s A Cool/Weird Religion And You Are Still Having An Existential Crisis But What About The Cute Pegs? What Drove The Shakers Design-Wise?
The Shakers wanted to create chairs perfect enough for angels to sit on. Literally. How sweet is that? Whey wanted rooms that transformed earth into heaven. They wanted to worship God without ornamentation. I don’t know what I believe but I want chairs that angels feel comfortable sitting on and yes to a ‘heaven on earth’ feeling. These are big goals, and saying they are ‘lofty’ would be an understatement. But when your spiritual and personal worlds combine in the form of designing your home maybe this is a rectification you are ready for? WHO KNOWS, I just love this convergence, and it’s bringing me all sorts of good vibes.
Everything Had To Be Necessary
First and foremost they were the original American minimalists. Sure other people back then didn’t have “stuff”, but this was their pure intention not just out of ‘lack’. The Shakers rejected ornamentation and didn’t believe in beauty (“beauty was absurd, order was of heaven”). So you’ll see no extra details for beauty’s sake – everything was simple, practical, and had to have a purpose.
Abundance Of Natural Light
This is part of the whole ‘heaven in home’ thing. I had already planned a ton of interior windows to bring light into the rooms that don’t get enough so when I read that they were big into interior windows I freaked out. Here’s why – because their homes were also their meeting houses they were really big, but the middle of the house (the meeting room) got very little light. Enter interior windows. I’m a big fan and have used them twice (dining room and our main closet) and planned on a lot of these in the design of the farm before even realizing they are indeed a staple of Shaker design.
They also employed windows on the ceiling (yes, that’s right – the OG SKYLIGHTS), So while I was nervous that bringing in some skylights would be odd with the vintage nature of the house, I feel like this gave me permission.
Symmetry, Literally Everywhere
I love this fact. So the men and women lived in different (but equal) sides of the home so they basically just repeated the halves, mirroring each other. And Symmetry goes along with ‘order’ obviously so they employed this everywhere they could.
It seemed most of the color that they brought in was through the trimwork – something I was planning on doing, but in a softer way (with less contrast). You can see up there the doors/peg rail and high baseboard brought in the only color in the whole space.
This was another thing that I was already designing into the house, so when I read the Remodelista article that included their use of interior shutters I was so happy/surprised. I’ll be writing all about how and why to do this, stay tuned. I love how simple those are above.
Designed To Be Easy To Clean
They designed not just for practical living but focused on how easy it was to clean. This is where the peg rail came in – they could hang their chairs while they swept and mopped. They could hang all their tools to have easy access. By having a peg rail literally around the whole room they could design their cupboards to be hung (so not have to be installed permanently). They even designed many of their dining chairs to be the same height as the table so you can push it in and not have to move around each chair as you wipe. I’ll be honest that I never really designed a house to be easy to clean before because for the last few years I wasn’t the one doing the deep cleaning. I feel like a real privileged dummy, but now that I do all the deep cleaning you bet I’m going to take this into consideration.
Muted Color Palette
They employed all neutrals with varying shades of blues, greens, and yellows to make it feel calm and cohesive. Same! I’ve never ever ever painted with yellows before but I’m like maybe there is a way to bring it in as it’s such a happy color to make sense for our family.
Incredible Storage Solutions
ALL CLOSED, no clutter (because they didn’t have anything they didn’t NEED). They created so many built-ins instead of furniture to take up less space. Their peg rails even housed their candlesticks and medicine cabinets (something I want to copy for sure).
Perfectly Designed Iconic Furniture
The ladderback chair is certainly iconic and designed and built to be ergonomic in every way. For a group of people who denounced beauty, they sure did make beautiful tables, dressers, and cabinets. And my goodness the railing on their stairs were stunning.
Does This Mean You Are Doing Shaker Everything?
Nope! It’s an incredible intention and inspiration but I’m not locking myself into it completely. I LOVE LOVE LOVE having this foundational inspiration, rooted in history. It gives a really strong direction that I can go back to with every single permanent decision to make sure it aligns. But I also want flexibility to play with color, other styles, and texture for the rest of my life (or however long we live here). I also need far more comfort than the Shaker furniture can provide. So when I say the house is going to be heavily ‘Shaker’, I’m talking mostly in the architecture and all the permanent finishes – not the furniture or accessories and of course, I’m still allowing myself to have fun anywhere I want to. We have this super quiet foundation of muted pretty tones, a lot of natural light, so much function and practicality. Then I can layer on my pieces that do have decorative details. I mean my art is certainly not ‘necessary’ and my layered bedding for ultimate softness isn’t ‘required’ for sleeping but obviously, our house will be filled with meaningful art and very cozy beds. It’s also just awesome that I have a connection to the style, through the spiritual aspect of it. I’m hoping it can just become this positive guide to make the home what it can be to help my whole family thrive. It’s helping me be more purposeful and always check back with my “intention”. You know how at the beginning of yoga class how they ask you to set an intention, I think that for this house it aligns so much with what the Shakers did – both in how they lived their life and their timeless design.
So there you have it – the Hendersons Shaker Farm (with a big dose of eclecticism on top), and you bet there will be dancing, in every form. 🙂
Stay tuned for inspirational interior photos of what this will actually look like (the research part of this post took over – hopefully, you history enthusiasts enjoyed it), as well as a roundup of Shaker pieces you can buy now, all the other elements (we haven’t even talked about Shaker cabinetry!) and how I’m layering ‘Victorian’ on top of it all. Because if there is one group of people who the Shakers didn’t agree with aesthetically it was the Victorians… 🙂 THERE WILL BE DRAMA.
Opening Image Credit: Image Source