Actually three separate exhibitions, this is altogether the most thorough presentation of Shaker culture ever seen in Chicago. More formally the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing,” the Shakers are the longest continually operating religious utopian community in America. At their height they numbered five thousand across twenty-two communities.
Nearly all the objects seen here were first collected in the 1920s and thirties by a passionate young American couple. But modernism itself owes a huge debt to the ornament-less functionality of Shaker design. “Beauty rests on utility,” is their maxim. Most people think furniture when they think Shaker, and visitors will certainly drool over the many fine pieces on display. Their famous ladder-back chairs—highly functional and quickly made—were the Ikea of their day. A cobbler’s bench has an ergonomic seat along with the patina of abundant use. Particularly charming are the dolls, the child’s rocker (originally priced at $3.25), and all the costume and textiles. But there are strange items here, too, such as an oddly humane adult cradle and an early electrostatic medical device (use unknown). Shaker road signs topped with scriptural warnings addressed trespassers, and fascinating “Gift Drawings” were the calligraphic version of speaking in tongues.
Spare hallway galleries are dedicated to vivid photographs of Shaker architecture. Burnham definitely would have approved of these grand communal buildings! That they are strictly gender-segregated indicates the Shakers’ celibacy and its tragic consequences for their numbers, but the pacifism and the equality of the sexes they practice is certainly admirable. And who can argue with a community that wants to live thoughtfully, simply and produce quality things? But they are also shrewd Yankees, as seen in their production techniques and engagement with markets.
The Shakers’ design genius and cultural achievement is thoughtfully matched by LUMA’s presentation. The wooden floors, echoing spaces and quiet music conjure up a meeting house. And a Thomas Merton quote reminds viewers that, “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” (Mark Pohlad)
Through April 26 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan