Decompression Village

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After last weekend’s Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event and the book release party for “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” my head was vapor-locked. I’m not built for that much social interaction. While it was great to meet and talk to everyone who came, I woke up Sunday morning somewhat zombified.

So after a big brunch, a group of us trekked down to the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, a quick 90-minute drive from my house. The stated reason for the visit: show furniture maker David Savage the place (his impressions of the place are here). But my motives were selfish. I needed to get my head on straight.

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I’ve been visiting Pleasant Hill ever since we moved to Kentucky in 1993. And while I don’t build a lot of Shaker furniture, the furniture and architecture are like food for me as a designer and builder. Making simple things that last was a key part of Shaker life.

Western Shakers don’t get as much attention as the East Coast colonies. The furniture is bulkier and, to some eyes, less refined. I think the Western Shaker design aesthetic simply reflects the landscape and is flavored by the frontier furniture that was more common on the edge of the civilized world.

In any case, I love it. This trip I spent some time focusing on two of the workbenches at Pleasant Hill, which are unlike the benches at the East Coast colonies. You can read about those benches here and here.

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I also focused on some of the scratched details around doors and on rails and stiles.

The attached gallery shows the things that caught my eye this time. But every visit is different.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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16 Responses to Decompression Village

  1. Eric R says:

    I definitely need to make a road trip there sometime.
    This was the style I took up when I first began woodworking.
    Simple but elegant.
    Great post.
    Now go relax for a little bit Chris.

  2. parks2167 says:

    OK, Where do we sign up for the new book and the bus tour?

  3. kv41 says:

    Thanks, Chris. It is always calming to see and especially to be in a beautifully designed house.

  4. bearkatwood says:

    Hilarious, if I had a nickle for every time I climbed under a table or flipped a chair over to examine it… I would have a nice sack of nickles.

  5. Ed Clarke says:

    Something bothers me about the chest of drawers (img_4520.jpg). The drawer part looks like typical Shaker, but the top cupboard just doesn’t look right. The small 1/3 width door leaves you with quite restricted access to the other 2/3 of the cupboard. What am I missing?

    • I notice this too Ed, especially with Shaker stuff, but I have seen it elsewhere. I am shooting from the hip here but I wonder if it has something to do with a combination of economy of time and resources and also the technology at the time. I think that the cases made of laminated boards might have needed a perpendicular return onto the front face to give them some structure. After that, it could have simply been a decision based on the dimension of available wood for these vertical supports and the incorporated doors, maybe even number of hinges laying around!

      I would love to hear the true reason from an expert as I have always wondered at them as well, their proportions, to my eye of the identified chest of drawers is not as pleasant as some of the proportions of the other examples with doors in the gallery which are built in fundamentally the same manner, which makes me think it was a result of restrictions rather than per-determined design intent

  6. tsstahl says:

    They really liked punctuating dovetails with nails. Makes one wonder if they even used glue…

  7. Katie and I used to go to South Union Shaker village in southern Kentucky. Beautiful place as well. We wanted to visit Pleasant Hill but alas… we are up north now. Maybe we should head to Enfield soon!

  8. Great post and gallery, I really enjoy Shaker furniture. As a product of an art and design school I do get a level of enjoyment out of the utterly inhuman and unnatural geometric simplicity of Modern design, and find the Shaker style to be interesting examples of equally simple and “proletariat” designs long predating the Modernists– and for such seemingly opposing rationale.

    I particular like the (I counted 3 examples) chest of drawers/cupboard/cabinets that drop straight to the floor. They stand out in my eye as monolithic and architectural and I feel like it is pretty rare nowadays to see free-standing pieces without some air between them and the floor, even our kitchen cabinets have little “kick ins” for the toes that do something similar, visually and functionally, as a case lifted on legs.

    It makes me wonder how incredibly flat their floors ought to have been! Or perhaps it was some reverent sacrifice to suffer with out toe-room?

  9. hiscarpentry says:

    I too have heard of the nailed dovetails yet haven’t seen the operation. I would think that they would be nailed through the pins (though, not with “blind of one eye” joints) not the tails, so as not to let the tails slide out the way they went in.

  10. waltamb says:

    Chris,
    I have visited many of the NE Villages and they do in fact clear the clutter from your mind.
    One of the interesting facts about Shaker Furniture was that in the early days as member joined, they brought with them all their possessions which were divided up and used where needed.
    They also brought with them skills and design ideas from the world so some of that shows in the different communities.
    What I fine amazing is that they built things as need arose for themselves in a different way than they did with the products they mass produced for sale.
    It was not uncommon to have chairs of different design size and shape in one room.
    Got my Design Book today and will try and unwind myself and take it to someplace quiet for a good read.

  11. studioffm says:

    Chris
    Thank you so much for taking me to Pleasant Hill. I enjoyed the day so much and learned a great deal .Listening to the docent singing so beautifully, and so explaining the Shaker culture, was for me a memory I will hold forever.

    very best
    david

  12. edfurlong says:

    In my pre-making days I lived in Bloomington, Indiana for a couple of years in the mid ’80’s and one of my best memories of that time was driving down to Pleasant Hill and spending the weekend. Although I didn’t truly “get” the design/function aesthetic of the Shaker communities, The spare functionality floored me. There are now a lot of shaker peg based holding devices in my home. I also remember that the beds were comfortable and the food basic but very tasty. Thanks for the slideshow-it brought back some great memories.

  13. I was once caught in that posture under a table at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, by the curator, soon after it’s re-opening in the mid-90’s. I was then invited on the remainder of the museum tour she was giving to the other Parisian museum curators. Most useful sketch of a table leaf mechanism I’d ever made.

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