In 1935 the Whitney Museum mounted the first comprehensive exhibit of Shaker artifacts, celebrating the simplicity and harmony of the Shaker artistic vision. This past summer, the Whitney opened a much more ambitious show of “Shaker Design,” later shown at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, from October through January.

United Technologies Corporation, which is sponsoring “Shaker Design,” has become an increasingly important corporate sponsor of art exhibitions in New York. This exhibit in particular complements the industries supporting it, since Shaker design, in the words of UTC President Robert Daniell, “is so purposeful in concept and so economical in execution.”

Even more outstanding than the show is the full-color exhibition catalog in which many Shaker artists are identified for the first time. June Sprigg, guest curator, introduces artisans such as furniture-maker Henry Green, who sold Shaker pieces along the Maine seashore; physician James X. Smith, who designed an ingenious close stool for infirm patients; chairmaker Robert Wagan, who marketed Shaker products nationally through mail-order catalogs; watercolor artist Hannah Cohoon, whose designs appeared to her “brought by an angel”; and Isaac N. Youngs, a clockmaker who found it “needful and admisable” [sic] to install clocks in barns.

This catalog and exhibition with more than 100 pieces of furniture, household objects, tools, graphic designs, textiles, and textile equipment also focus in a meaningful way on the Shaker community which created and used these items. The spiritual purpose and strong will of Ann Lee, the founding Mother who lost her four children in infancy and later crossed an ocean to establish an enduring Utopian community, still shines through two centuries later in functional objects of simple beauty and perfect proportion.

The exhibit, however, could not possibly evoke the spiritual totality of the Shaker households and shops in which these objects were used. Relieved of familial anxieties and the demands of fashion in the outside world. Shaker artists shaped their designs to reflect the perfection of a higher reality. The remaining establishments which today can be visited as museums of the Shaker spirit have preserved Shaker artifacts in their proper settings. A table or chair that might appear too austere when displayed alone fits more appealingly into the symmetry of a communal dining room.

The peaceful attraction of Shaker design continues to endure, attracting thousands of visitors each year to museums like the Settlement in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, which contains a famous free-standing double spiral staircase. In this complex, where my children saw their first floor loom in operation, visitors sense the quiet peacefulness with which generations of Shakers endowed the very windows, doors, and fences of Pleasant Hill. The quiet strength and joyous energy, which somehow coexist in such places, can still be felt in things as large as the dance patterns worn in the meetinghouse floor down to the smallest box and bonnet.