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Design Classics

Shaker Oval Boxes,
from 1790s onwards

Designer: Various Shaker Communities
Manufacturer: Knoll

The Shakers were a Christian Utopian sect founded in England in 1747. They believed in common ownership of property, communal living and direct communication with God, which caused them to move or shake spontaneously during religious rituals. They emigrated to America in 1774, where they established self-sufficient communities, but have been reduced to just four members now as a result of one of their other core beliefs – chastity.

Shaker communities were beehives of activity and commerce. They manufactured clothing, dolls, tools, household objects and furniture for sale to the outside world and soon gained a reputation for unparalleled craftsmanship.

Their famous boxes were traditionally made from a variety of thinly sliced and bent woods such as cherry, maple and pine. Early boxes were often stained or painted and sold in nested sets of five. With their bevelled swallowtail or Gothic arch joints, snug-fitting lids, copper tacks and elegant and pleasing elliptical shape, they were used for storing herbs, beans and sugar.

While the Shakers didn’t invent wooden oval boxes, they were certainly perfected by them. The earliest boxes date from the 1790s and were made by the Shaker community in New Lebanon, N.H. The advent of cheap, mass-produced metal canisters spelled the death of the wooden box.

The Shakers believed every object should have a function and that decoration was unnecessary. One of their sayings was: “That which in itself has the highest use possesses the highest beauty.” An early variation on architect Louis Sullivan's credo “form follows function,” this aesthetic philosophy reflects the purity of their design. In the Shakers' view, this was a testament to God. In our view, it's what makes them classic.

National Post, December 1, 2005.