“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
In a world saturated with beautiful objects, it's easy to forget the essence of good design: The main priority is to be necessary and useful. Then, once that has been achieved, make something beautiful.. The Shakers, a religious community known for their functional and elegant furniture, perfectly embody this philosophy.
For them, design wasn't an art form. It was about crafting objects that solved problems, served a purpose, and endured. They built strong, reliable furniture from honest materials like wood and wool. They invented practical tools like the circular saw and the flat broom. Beauty, while not ignored, was a consequence of this mindful approach. Their pieces, with their clean lines and sturdy construction, exude a quiet elegance that speaks to their underlying purpose.
This mindset resonates deeply. I confess to struggling with this very concept in my recent post on design principles, questioning "Is design not art?" The Shakers provide a clear answer: they are not mutually exclusive. By prioritizing function, we create a strong foundation upon which beauty can naturally blossom.
Think of the iconic Shaker ladder-back chair. Its simple form offers comfort and support, while the graceful spindles add a touch of visual interest. Its tilting cousin, with its ingenious ball-and-socket joints, elevates functionality to a playful level. These chairs, both beautiful and built to last, exemplify the Shaker design philosophy at its finest.
It's no coincidence that Ward Cunningham, creator of the ever-accessible wiki, finds inspiration in Shaker simplicity. Both strive for clean lines, clear purpose, and enduring utility.
The Shakers may be a dwindling community, but their legacy lives on. Their furniture graces homes around the world, and their design principles continue to inspire architects, designers, and even software developers.
So, the next time you admire a well-crafted object, ask yourself: does it serve a purpose? Does it stand the test of time? If the answer is yes, then perhaps a bit of Shaker wisdom has found its way into its design. And that, in itself, is something to celebrate.
Visit the Shaker Historical Society website to learn more about their history and design legacy.
Browse online collections of Shaker furniture to discover the beauty in practicality.
Apply the Shaker principles to your own designs, whether it's a piece of furniture, a website, or even your daily routine.
Let the Shakers remind us that good design is not a fleeting trend, but a timeless quest for objects that work well and bring joy to our lives.