In August of 1774, eight intrepid Shakers landed in Manhattan from Manchester, England, in search of a home where they could practice their fledgling religion in peace. Nearly two and half centuries later, their presence has returned to the borough; specifically, to a storybook stretch of Commerce Street in the West Village.
The Commerce Inn, which opened in December, is a Shaker kitchen meets early American tavern with a dash of 19th-century oyster house. Its white-walled dining room is an exacting homage to the Protestant religious group, whose signature furniture and décor rejected adornment and insisted upon simplicity, utility and honesty in craft. The chef-owners Rita Sodi and Jody Williams spent years poring over old Shaker recipes and cookbooks as inspiration for its dishes, which include spoon bread, oxtail and ginger cake.
“Our goal is to really honor what they were doing,” Ms. Williams, 59, said. She and Ms. Sodi, 60, who are partners in life as well as in business, paid particular attention to the Shakers’ hospitality and how they welcomed outsiders into their communities.
“When people near the Shakers would raid their fields or steal from them, what did they do in return? They just grew more to provide for everyone,” Ms. Williams said. “That gave me chills.”
Like many, the two were first drawn to the Shakers through their beguilingly plain furniture. But in learning more about the group, they were struck by its progressive attitudes toward gender, race and sustainability. To develop their concept, they worked closely with Lacy Schutz, the executive director at the Shaker Museum in Chatham, N.Y., which is currently in the process of a vast expansion designed by Annabelle Selldorf, the founder of Selldorf Architects in New York.
Shakers “were striving to do something differently than the rest of the world,” Ms. Schutz said. Both sexes had equal responsibility and mobility within the church long before women could own property and vote, and Black congregants were welcomed decades before the country abolished slavery.
The group’s influence has been particularly prevalent of late, inspiring not only restaurateurs like Ms. Sodi and Ms. Williams, but also makers in fashion, art and design. As the Shaker hymn proclaims, ’tis the gift to be simple, perhaps even more so in these times that are anything but.
“The people that I’ve talked to, the designers, the makers, people like Rita and Jody,” Ms. Schutz said, are drawn to aspects of Shakerism right now because of “a desire to communicate a belief system and a level of integrity.”
“We look back to the Shakers to find what it is that we are seeking collectively,” she added.
Craftsmanship as Worship
Formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, the religion began in England as an offshoot of Quakerism. Its adherents were given the name Shakers because of an early form of worship that involved spontaneous, ecstatic movement.
Based on the tenets of communal living, celibacy and a life lived in the service of God, Shakerism flourished under the guidance of its charismatic founding leader, Mother Ann Lee, an illiterate visionary who preached of receiving messages from God that these principles were the only way to salvation.
The religion’s tenets also include the belief that each object congregants put their hands to is a vessel of worship. Recognized for innovations including the circular saw, flat broom and seeds sold in packets, the Shakers, whose members call themselves sisters and brothers, developed a particular skill for woodworking and cabinetmaking.
They first used pieces to furnish their growing communities, then as a way to support them by selling items to consumers, marketing their brand of “Shaker Made” as synonymous with well-made and durable.
At their peak, the Shakers had a footprint extending from Maine to Florida and as far west as Indiana. Their furniture became valuable to collectors at the beginning of the 20th century, when it started to be appreciated as one of the first uniquely American styles of design. Around the same time, the Shakers’ ranks began to dwindle.
“The appeal of Shakerism is not an easy sell,” said Brother Arnold Hadd, 65, one of two practicing congregants at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. Established in 1783, it is the sole active Shaker community in existence. Its other resident, Sister June Carpenter, is 84.
Emily Adams Bode Aujla, the designer of the men’s wear line Bode, is part of the Shaker Museum’s “Maker’s Circle.” The group of artists and designers, Katie Stout and the brothers Simon and Nikolai Haas among them, comes together to discuss the Shakers’ influence and history in videos filmed for the museum’s YouTube channel, and at events including the Design Miami fair.
“Their commitment to craft was unparalleled,” Ms. Bode Aujla, 32, said. Though her quilt-patch separates have a handmade aesthetic quality that recalls Shaker clothes of the past, it is the philosophy behind them that is more directly drawn from Shakerism. To cut down on waste, she primarily makes clothes with deadstock — unused fabric — and archival textiles, much like the Shakers, who would repurpose fabric from worn out garments to create doll clothes or mops.
“We created a new way of making a business and investing in particular things, like handwork and craft, and being able to keep up with making one-of-a-kind garments,” Ms. Bode Aujla said. “They’re kind of an icon for that.”
The Shaker spirit has been channeled by other fashion designers, including Tory Burch, whose spring 2021 collection was based on the Shaker maxim “beauty rests on utility” and presented in a show at Hancock Shaker Village, a former community turned museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
Last year, Hancock Shaker Village was the location of another show, “Heaven Bound,” which featured the work of Thomas Barger, a sculptor in Bushwick. Mr. Barger said the Shakers had a “holistic ethos — men and women were treated equally — and that relates to today.” He added that a growing interest in Shaker craft was clear, citing a reason that has inspired many people to freshen up the homes where they have spent a lot of time during the pandemic: “People just want to live with nice things.”
For his exhibition, which explored themes of religion and farming, Mr. Barger, 30, subverted the austerity of Shaker furniture by using elements of it to playful effect, turning chairs upside down, exaggerating their height and mashing up Shaker baskets with plywood and polyurethane to create sculpture.
Others have made less dramatic reinterpretations. At his studio in Windham, N.Y., Brian Persico, a furniture designer, crafts ladder-back chairs and settees that are heavily influenced by the Shaker tradition. Less rigid than the originals that inspire them, his pieces have a slight roundness that makes them more at home in the 21st century, while still drawing on the straightforward allure of Shaker design.
“It’s so uncomplicated,” Mr. Persico, 35, said of the style. “And it speaks to a much simpler life, which everybody strives for but is completely unattainable.”
Keeping the Faith Alive
At the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in Maine, which comprises a row of white and brick buildings couched on the crest of a gently rising hill, such a life is very real, though anything but simple. Its elder resident’s age and immobility leave most of the labor required to keep Shakerism alive in 2022 to Brother Arnold, who joined the Shakers in 1978 at 21 and is now the faith’s undisputed historian, theologian and spiritual ambassador.
His responsibilities include the upkeep of the village’s five-story, 19th-century dwelling house and 19,000-tree apple orchard; tending to its herd of Scottish Highland cattle and ever-growing flock of sheep; and managing an online and wholesale herb business.
Though residents have historically hired help from the outside, the pandemic has limited their ability to employ as much staff as in the past. “I will be very happy when I don’t have to do all of that stuff,” he said. “But for right now, that’s what I have to do. God gives me the strength to do it.”
Even though its fate rests largely on him, Brother Arnold is unfazed by speculation about the survival of his faith. “If we’re doing the will of God, vocations will be set. I’ve seen that bear out,” he said, adding that there is a person who is very likely to join Sabbathday Lake soon.
He has always seen the wider fascination with Shakerism’s material history as a way for the world to better understand Shakers. But too narrow a fascination with the goods obscures the Shaker message of a life lived in the service of God.
“A chair’s a chair: It’s just there to sit on,” he said.