Shaker-style furniture has long been celebrated by design lovers for its lean, sparing lines and uncompromising simplicity. Perhaps less known to these same design buffs are the ideals of inclusion and fairness to which the Shakers—members of a religious sect who traveled from England to the American Northeast in the mid-18th century—subscribed. Even architect Annabelle Selldorf, who was just named to oversee the renovation and design of a new permanent facility for the Shaker Museum in Chatham, New York, did not know the full extent of the group’s socially progressive views until she was tapped for this undertaking.
“I was not as familiar with their values and how advanced they were in areas of racial, gender, and social equity and inclusion,” Selldorf says of the Shakers, whose leadership was divided between one man and one woman, and who were practitioners of pacifism. “Once I got deeper into their history and ethos, I was even more keen to work on the project. I like to think that this project is about more than architecture; it is really about connecting the Shaker values with contemporary society.”
The original Shaker Museum was founded in 1950 by John S. William, Sr., in Old Chatham, New York, where it still keeps an extensive collection of objects, archives, and other ephemera that is normally open by appointment only. The museum also has a site nearby in Mount Lebanon, where the first American Shaker community was founded in 1787. But this new endeavor from Selldorf marks the first time the museum will have a permanent exhibition space that is open to the public. The project will get underway in 2021 (with a targeted completion by 2023) in a circa-1815 building in Chatham that was originally a hotel where Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Houdini were reportedly frequent guests. Since then, it has been a cancer sanitarium, a theater, a roller rink, a factory, and a furniture store. Selldorf will renovate the existing structure and build an addition, for a total of 30,000 square feet across four floors. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects will collaborate on the grounds.
“The communal reliance the Shakers exhibit in their everyday lives also has parallels to our collaborative approach to our work, with many voices contributing to a design with the broader community in mind,” says Thomas Woltz, a principal in the firm. “Shaker tenets and design maxims are in close alignment with our own design philosophy of making functional and useful work that is beautiful at the same time.”
Certainly, the necessary social isolation of the current pandemic has further emphasized the importance of creating physical communities, like museums, once it is safe for people to venture back to such gathering spaces.
“During this extended period of social and physical distancing to fight the pandemic, the role that museums have played as places that can bring people together in a spirit of inquiry, reflection, and conversation is ever more pressing,” Selldorf says. “And I feel that will be even more considered and amplified in the future.”
You Might Also Like