Last week I stole away from the shop on a sunny afternoon to go see the exhibition “Out of This World: Shaker Design Past, Present, and Future” at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture. I was really looking forward to seeing it and was not disappointed, but it left me craving more.
Organized by Jean Burks, senior curator at Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, the exhibition presents a solid, concise introduction to Shaker furniture and material culture along with interesting examples of contemporary furniture influenced by Shaker design. It also shows a group of far-out Shaker “spirit drawings,” and for context, a room full of early 19th century “Fancy” American furniture which stands in sharp contrast to the pared-down economy of the Shaker designs evolving during the same period. A catalogue and schedule of programs accompany the show.
A small but rich exhibition, "Out of This World" is highly worth seeing if you want to learn more about Shakers and see their work in person. It will immerse you in Shaker aesthetics through a dozen different angles, not only in the form of chairs and cabinets, but also packaging design, sweaters, drawings, and color. It also offers an extremely rare opportunity to see some outstanding examples of Shaker furniture and material culture from multiple villages all gathered in one place. And then it delivers you into a room full of well-chosen Shaker-influenced furniture by a range of designers from George Nakashima to Roy McMakin. (I especially loved the classic Candle Stand with an inverted wine bottle serving as the pedestal by Chris Becksvoort, and the perfectly irregular chest of drawers by Roy McMakin.) It’s an interesting, valuable show.
However I was surprised by the flat, unimaginative exhibition design, with furniture grouped in rooms by category and displayed on low pedestals along the wall (and occasionally on a Shaker peg board), a choice that doesn’t match the forward-thinking concept of the show. I think the comparisons might have been better presented with, for instance, the long Shaker bench right next to the George Nakashima Conoid Bench rather than a floor apart, or the “Fancy” chair next to the Shaker chair next to the Danish Modern chair.
I also found the presentation of “Fancy” furniture way overdone. I’m not sure we needed to see so many dozens of examples of hysterically painted pottery or faux wood-grain drop-leaf tables. It felt like the Shelburn Museum, a major lender to the show, became subject not lender, and it distracted me from the very point – historical context – this section meant to make.
Similarly, while very interesting as an aside, I failed to understand how the spirit drawings fit into the conversation. It might have made more sense if, as with the furniture, the drawings were shown with contemporary examples of art or design they have influenced. The same might be said of the commodity design section.
Perhaps the show tries to take on too much in too small a space. While it certainly does the visitor a great service in offering a strong introduction to Shaker design, with the exception of the furniture component it seems to fall short of its goal to present the past along with the present and the future. (And to be a little nit-picky, I’m not sure it offers a “future” view at all.)
So while I do recommend the show as well worth seeing, it left me with more questions than it answered. Although perhaps that is as valuable as the chance to see all that amazing furniture up close and in person.