Shaker World

John T. Kirk, Author
John T. Kirk, Author ABRAMS $60 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8109-4472-5
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The Shakers--so goes the popular imagination--were a sober, hardworking, separatist religious sect, who gave the world simple, functional, uniquely American designs. Kirk deconstructs this popular image, depicting a far more complex people than commonly imagined. On the one hand, according to Kirk, the Shakers shared radical beliefs and ecstatic religious experiences that separated them from society. On the other hand, they were firmly in the mainstream of early American design, creating furniture that was distinctive yet participated in the same trends of shape and color that characterized other styles of the same period. Kirk, an art historian with training as a cabinetmaker, attempts to provide a broad portrait of the Shakers' religion and culture as well as their design. The resulting book is a beautifully illustrated (277 illustrations, 82 in color) and lucid challenge to many popular assumptions. For example, the Shakers used color energetically, and they borrowed and adapted freely from ""worldly"" design. They participated, at times, in the marketing of their inaccurate public image, creating ""pure"" Shaker rooms for visitors to their communities while living in more complex, Victorian surroundings away from visitors' eyes. Kirk's coverage of Shakerism is somewhat superficial from a religious-historical perspective, but an ambitious and thorough project from the perspective of art history. (Dec.)
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