- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Ken Hakuta has made it his mission to maintain the legacy of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon, N.Y.
In 1990, Mr. Hakuta of Northwest bought its entire contents for $1.5 million from the Darrow School in New Lebanon. The college-preparatory school on the site of the historic Shaker village was going bankrupt. The only hope for survival was to sell the Shaker objects it owned. The items included about 250 large pieces of furniture and hundreds of small objects, such as alphabet boards and milk pitchers.
"I was the only one who would preserve the collection," Mr. Hakuta says. "After about 200 years of existence, I was the only one."
The Shakers, who came to this country from Manchester, England, around 1774, seeking religious freedom, are celebrated for their functional and simple furniture, which they considered an expression of their faith. Despite the Shakers' rejection of beauty for beauty's sake, their furniture is revered by today's leading historians and craftsmen for its design, as it reflects the order the Shakers displayed in their lives.
The premier pieces of Mr. Hakuta's collection traveled the world in an exhibition for about four years, ending in July 1999 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Northwest. Those contents, including cupboards, cases of drawers, desks, counters and work benches, now rest in storage in Maryland. Other Shaker objects are in his home.
Mr. Hakuta says the Shakers emphasized organization, which is why they created pieces of furniture with large dimensions, such as 81 inches by 69 inches by 24 inches. Since Shakers lived in communes, they needed space to store the belongings of an entire community. Most of their chairs were small, to fit the size of the people of the day. Almost all the furniture is unadorned, as a rejection of temporal beauty.
"Shaker pieces were not to show off," Mr. Hakuta says. "One was not to waste energy to decorate."
Some of the later Shaker furniture reflects the adornment of the Victorian age, Mr. Hakuta says.
"This piece was made later, about 1860, and is slightly Victorianized. You can see a little decoration around the edges," he says, pointing at a Shaker cupboard over drawers in his study. He notes that the piece is listed in the Index of American Design at the National Gallery of Art in Northwest, which is a compilation of the major styles of fine American furniture from roughly 1650 to 1850.
Although Mr. Hakuta says he could sell the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village collection for more than $1.5 million, he has no plans to do so. He made about $20 million in the 1980s by selling about 240 million Wacky Wallwalkers, sticky plastic toys that creep down walls.
"I'm not selling the collection. I don't think about it," he says. "If I had financial problems, I'd have to sell something, but I'd rather have the things go to a museum than auctioning them off at Sotheby's in New York City."
Andy Vadnais, former curator at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., says Mr. Hakuta's collection is one of a kind.
"These are items made by the Shakers, which never left the site until Ken acquired them," Mr. Vadnais says. "For Shaker items, that's unusual. There are certainly Shaker collections in museums, but they are assembled from many different villages and displayed out of context. Ken owns one of the premier private collections."
Although Shakers had settlements in Kentucky, New England and Ohio, Mr. Vadnais says the Mount Lebanon community was the center of Shaker activity.
"In the Shaker world, Mount Lebanon was like the Vatican," he says. "It was the biggest village. They produced the most furniture, some of the most beautiful furniture in the 19th century."
Jerry Grant, director of research at the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, N.Y., says fewer than a dozen Shakers currently live in Sabbathday Lake in Maine. Since the Shaker community has dwindled, most Shaker furniture pieces made today are reproductions by modern furniture makers.
The surviving Shakers still hold to the tenets of Shakerism, including a commitment to common property, confession of sins, pacifism, celibacy, separation from the world and equality of the sexes. They believe they are living during an end-times period known as the "millennium," a 1,000-year period when Jesus Christ rules on Earth along with His faithful followers.
"They are true Shaker believers," Mr. Grant says, referring to those present-day Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. "As the second coming of Christ is promised, they believe it occurred in the 1700s and the messenger for that event was their leader, Ann Lee."
Larrie Curry, director of the museum division at the restoration of the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, in Harrodsburg, Ky., says under the direction of Miss Lee, Shakers considered working with their hands as an act of worship.
"It showed an appreciation of God's gifts of resources, talents and time," Ms. Curry says. "They were trying to build a heaven on Earth."
In terms of construction, Ms. Curry says the Shakers used the same techniques as other furniture makers of the 1800s, but they simplified their designs.
"The knobs were very nicely proportioned wooden knobs, when people in the world were using brass," she says. "There are more turnings and decoration in the furniture in the outside world. They brought things down to the basic elements and functional parts, and that's considered good design."
While today, most furniture is made with machines, Shaker furniture was made by hand and meant to last, Ms. Curry says.
"They had an eye for proportion and line," she says. "They had an eye for beauty, but not the type of beauty that was popular at the time. It was considered ugly, plain furniture at the time. Today it's very modern."
Thomas Moser, president and founder of Thos. Moser Cabinet Makers in Auburn, Maine, says the designs of the Shakers and the values and principles they espoused influence his work greatly. Much like the Shakers, the mission of Mr. Moser's company is to build furniture that celebrates the natural beauty of wood with simple and graceful lines, exhibiting a long, useful life.
While most furniture today is held together by fasteners and screws, Mr. Moser constructs his pieces using the techniques of handcrafting, such as mortise-and-tenon joints. The technique inserts one element of wood into another, providing unshakeable strength. He also uses dovetails, angled joints on drawers with a series of cut fingers.
Although Mr. Moser's company does not specialize in Shaker reproductions, he does offer a 16-inch, round Shaker stand with three legs.
"Whatever the Shakers made, they made it as good as they could make it," Mr. Moser says. "Their motto was: 'Hands to work; hearts to God.' That has informed a lot of what we do."


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