So, when we were driving back to Connecticut after our highly technical tour of the bike factory, I noticed a few place names that sounded familiar. One of these was New Lebanon, NY. I knew there had been a Shaker settlement there in the 1800s. There was no time for us to stop and look for it, but it turned out we had an extra day at the end of the trip, so we could afford to go back up there after all. A bit of research showed that an even bigger Shaker village was nearby in Hancock, Massachusetts. I knew this place well from my many books on Shaker furniture and architecture. In fact, I show slides every semester and drone at at length on in my Woodworking class and my 3D Design Concepts classes, about this very place. Needless to say, I was very excited to have happened upon all this, completely unplanned. I knew my Spring 08 Woodworking class would approve of my going there.
When we got to Hancock, Massachusetts, the rain let up for a few hours, so we got to explore most of the buildings. A demonstration had just started of the water-powered wood shop, right when we arrived! This was more than I could have asked for. I frequently tell my students that a Shaker woman invented the table saw-- now I know it was the table saw blade that she invented. The rest, I don't know. I always thought the Shakers had worked in some crazy reckless freehand manner on their table saws, but in fact they had a pretty logical parallel fence system, and a precursor of the sliding feed tables popular today. The docents did a lathe demo and a bandsaw demo, with all the machines powered by overhead leather belts running from a water turbine under the floor. I had a brief conversation with one of the woodworker docents after the demo, and he said, "Here, come on in!" and let me into the wood shop. I didn't really know what I was supposed to do in there, so I just kept taking pictures of stuff.
Lathe demo and belt-powered shop.
A jointer very similar to the one in SJSU's wood shop.
Luckily, SJSU's table saw is not too much like this one.
Taking more pictures from inside the shop...
I got to look down into the water-powered turbine zone.
Next we moved on to the other buildings, including the round barn shown below, and the Shaker Dwelling House-- a place I've been in awe of for years based on my books of photographs of it.
Inside the round barn.
The shop where bentwood boxes are made. We missed the demo, but we got a verbal explanation. They make these a little differently than I thought. I will pass the information on to my students.
The Dwelling House has the most spectacular built-in cabinets and iconic, minimal furniture. It was amazing to finally see all of this firsthand, but I also had a nagging feeling of disillusionment. In art school one is incessantly lectured to about the importance of experiencing authentic works of art directly, as opposed to viewing them in photographic reproductions. The original, physical object apparently has an "aura" that will spill onto us if we come within a few feet of the thing itself. I have always preferred the pictures in books, and that is why I spend a lot of my money on art books. The "real thing" is often a bit shabby, beat up, and plastered with educational plaques and explanations. In the case of the Shaker Dwelling House, the real thing required us to wear fluffy blue shoe protectors-- quite reasonable, but a rather unromantic distraction from the elegant building. One became more conscious of oneself as tourist/ intruder, and of all the other tourists/ intruders.
There was a second source of disillusionment as well. Although I knew better, I had developed an image of the Shakers as a posse of precocious minimalist designers and efficiency experts. I had lost sight of the fact that, like their celibacy, their ostracism of ornament was part of a relentless quest for a limited number of available spots in the afterlife. Well, whatever the motivation, their aesthetic helped pave the way for a lot of Modernist furniture. And I now have my own images, free of copyright issues, of their beautiful furniture and Spartan interiors. Good enough.
Communal dining room.
"Adult cradles". The Shakers took in homeless and sick people, some of whom eventually became Shaker converts.