NEW BRITAIN - The New Britain Museum of American Art is showcasing Shaker craftsmanship in its Shaker Gallery in an exhibit called “Chairway to Heaven: A Celebration of Shaker Seating Furniture.”
“We’re one of three institutions that have a dedicated space to Shaker works and objects, however, this is the first exhibition that we’ve put on view that really explores jut their seating and the processes that they use to produce the seating,” said Melissa Nardiello, NBMAA’s marketing and design manager.
The exhibit, on display until Jan. 15, 2020, explores Shaker chairs and chair production.
“Our Shaker exhibition tends to be a little bit longer, but there’s such a great opportunity for us to showcase the art of physically making an object,” said Nardiello.
It features custom-made chairs from various Shaker communities as well as a range of production examples from the Shakers’ factory at Mount Lebanon, N.Y.
“The Shakers are definitely number one when it came to using styles and techniques to make the most efficient and effective everything I mean they made so much more than just chairs, but in this case the most efficient and effective chairs; it really is its own art form,” said Nardiello.
The Shakers came to the United States in 1774 and were known as the United Society of Believers. In 1787, their first fully formed, self-supporting community was established at New Lebanon, N.Y., a few miles west of the Massachusetts border.
“There was little standardization among these pieces as most were designed for either a specific Shaker Sister or Brother, or for a special use,” said M. Stephen Miller, the curator of the exhibit at NBMAA.
There was little in the way of the attempt or achievement of standardization, but this would change round 1867, as this small, self-sustaining craft developed into a chair making industry that featured standardized sizes, interchangeable parts, assembly line construction and division of labor.
“These were called ‘production furniture’,” explained Miller. “Brethren turned the individual pieces and put them together to form the frame of the piece; Sisters dyed these frames and applied woven wool tapes for their seats,”
A new building, which is still standing until this day, was erected at Mount Lebanon five years later. They were devoted exclusively to the manufacture of chairs, stools and - in very limited numbers - settees. Soon, eight well-defined sizes of chairs were offered, ranging from #0 (the smallest) to #7 (the largest).
Chairs could be ordered from Shaker with or without arms or rockers, with slatted or taped backs, with rear posts topped with finals or connected by a cushion rail.
“This industry was an extremely successful venture and provided Mount Lebanon with the cash necessary to purchase goods that the Community could not gather from their own lands,” said Miller. “This success encouraged competition that the Shakers countered by applying a gold decal to their products proclaiming that they were “Genuine Shaker made!”
All of the furniture on the long wall of the gallery are products of this innovative enterprise.
“I believe there are very few Shakers left. It’s quite a rarity to be able to find them (Shaker chairs),” said Nardiello.
There will be a lecture on Saturday, Oct. 5, featuring Miller and Don Wartella sharing their extensive knowledge of Shaker chairmaking and its history. To attend the lecture, visitors can sign up at the gallery.
The New Britain Museum of American Art, at 56 Lexington St., is the first institution dedicated solely to acquiring American art. It hosts exciting and relatable exhibitions and provides programs and free low-cost art classes after school for children
“We’re one of the oldest museums in the country dedicated to preserving American art and for us, it’s really important to be here and be able to serve our community,” said Nardiello.