Shaker Furniture Spotlight with Skinner, Inc.’s Chris Barber

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on

“There are very few wasted efforts in Shaker design,” Barber says of the category’s minimalist appeal.

Chris Barber of Skinner, Inc. Photo courtesy of the auction house.
Chris Barber of Skinner, Inc. Photo courtesy of the auction house.

Original Shaker furniture and household objects have an ageless appeal to many collectors. Skinner, Inc., of Marlborough, MA, is holding its Shaker Online auction event from August 11th to the 20th. It includes 180+ lots of Shaker and Shaker-related material, mostly from the 19th century. Auction Daily spoke with Skinner’s Chris Barber, Deputy Director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts, to learn more about this sale and the Shaker aesthetic.

Auction Daily:  Please give our readers a brief overview of your online Shaker Collections sale. 

Chris Barber: The sale is primarily made up of two collections from the Northeast, put together over decades, but we also have about 30 lots consigned by others who wanted to be a part of a Shaker sale. There are furniture and woodenware in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, most of which had very specific uses in the Shaker communities in which they were used.

Highlights range in category and include lot #3025, a yellow-painted cupboard over drawers; lot #3106, a lovely five-drawer chest in bittersweet red paint; a very nice group of Shaker boxes; and a variety of woodenware led by a lot #3048, a small white-painted carved dipper, which is a desirable and rare object.

Shaker yellow-painted cupboard over drawers. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.
Shaker yellow-painted cupboard over drawers. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.

AD: What makes the Shaker aesthetic – as it manifests itself in original furnishings and decorative accessories – so distinctive and appealing? 

Barber: I would say that the Shaker aesthetic is best defined as simple and elegant, and sometimes colorful. There are very few wasted efforts in Shaker design, and that resulted in stripped-down, generally unornamented objects which feel very modern. The choices that Shaker craftsmen and women made seem to have been primarily made for ease of utility, and to improve the function of an object – ergonomically carved handles, tight drawer joinery, etc. The modern look of Shaker-made objects has long appealed to a minimalist sensibility, and that minimalism is certainly an appealing look right now.

AD: Do people who buy original Shaker items actually use them as furniture and/or functional items, or are they more likely to display and admire them, as fine collectibles?

Barber: I think people who buy Shaker items do often use them, and for some of the reasons above – they are especially well-made and have lasted for many years already, so using them doesn’t often compromise their integrity. There are exceptions, of course, because at times, the value in a Shaker object is in its pristine condition, painted surface, and color. Those are the pieces that bring the most money, and might generally tend to be displayed rather than used.

AD: Tell us about the role and importance of original surface paint and finishes on Shaker furniture and accessories. 

Barber: From a value standpoint, original paint, surface, and the structural condition are of paramount importance to the Shaker collector, especially at the high end of the market. For example, a small pantry box that has been refinished might bring $300 or $400. A similarly-sized pantry box in bright yellow or orange/red bittersweet paint might bring $3,000 or $4,000.

Shaker red-painted chest of five drawers. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.
Shaker red-painted chest of five drawers. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.

Another factor – provenance – is also very tied to value. Prices can skyrocket if a piece is known to have been made by a certain Shaker craftsman, cabinetmaker, or woodworker, or if it was known to have been made as a presentation piece to be given to another Shaker brother or sister.  Even associations add interest to an object, for example, if a sewing box has the initials or signature of a particular Shaker sister written on it. 

AD: In your professional experience, what is the most amazing piece of Shaker material that you have encountered?

“Alphabet Board” from the collection of Erhart Muller. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.
“Alphabet Board” from the collection of Erhart Muller. Photo courtesy of Skinner, Inc.

Barber: I think my favorite piece of Shaker material that we have handled in my years here is a large, long, and narrow painted wooden “Alphabet Board,” which was part of the pioneering Shaker collection of Erhart Muller. We believe that piece was installed on the wall of the schoolhouse at the Harvard, Massachusetts, Shaker community. It measured 159 ½ inches long, so some Shaker collectors who simply could not fit it anywhere in their houses, but it was still the subject of intense competition at auction when we sold it in June 2016. The board was subtle, simple, precise, and beautifully painted with upper and lower case letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. It was in wonderful condition and is one of three known examples of the form. It brought over $100,000!

Skinner, Inc.’s Shaker Collections online sale takes place from August 11, 2020, 12:00 PM to August 20, 2020, 7:00 PM. Visit their website for more information and bidding options.