Movers & Shakers
SPONSORED CONTENT: CHILTON FURNITURE
By Caitlin Gilmet
To come up with their fresh, modern designs, Jen and Jared Levin, of Chilton Furniture, draw inspiration from a 300-year-old religious sect.
When Jen and Jared Levin sat down with Brother Arnold, one of the two remaining members of the Colonial New England sect known as the Shakers, there was an instant connection. Over tea and spiced fruit bread at the bucolic Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, they talked about the group’s philosophies, which emphasize industriousness and economy. “It became clear to me as we spoke that the Shaker lifestyle is still so valuable today,” Jen says. “It feels good to create, to find beauty in utility and your spirit in work.”
The visit, made shortly before the Levins purchased Freeport- and Scarborough-based Chilton Furniture in 2014, was an effort to better understand the historical furniture styles on which many of the company’s pieces are modeled. But it ended up sparking a business philosophy. Moved by the serenity they witnessed in the Shakers’ work and routines, the couple began researching the group’s furniture extensively, discovering that it was a precursor, and in many cases a direct influence on, the modern design movement. “We decided that the Shaker principles of utility, quality, and simplicity provide the perfect recipe for the minimalist aesthetic we find personally appealing for its peacefulness and clarity,” Jen says. Lately, she has focused on updating Chilton’s collections of Shaker, Scandinavian, modern, cottage, Arts and Crafts, and live-edge furniture with inventive new designs — a commitment to innovation that just so happens to be a Shaker principle too.
Q: What are the hallmarks of Shaker style?
Jen Levin: Exceptional craftsmanship, clean lines, natural materials, and functional design are key. These are also hallmarks of Scandinavian design, which was heavily influenced by the Shakers and is another major source of inspiration for us. The Shakers published laws against ‘fancy decoration,’ which was the trend during the Victorian era, when the Shakers increasingly made furniture available for sale to the outside world. Shaker style often features tapered legs, which make pieces lighter and easier to move around the home as needed. As in Scandinavian design, they tended to use wooden pulls instead of metal, because natural wood is less ostentatious. There’s a lot of the same attention to detail you see in Arts and Crafts furniture, but without the emphasis on visible joinery or inlays. The Shakers were also innovative — they invented wrinkle-free fabric, the circular saw, and the spring clothespin. They were always renewing and updating their traditions. Using their design fundamentals as a guide, we’re doing that as well.
Q: How are styles based on Shaker design principles relevant today?
JL: They are useful, well built, and understated. Pieces designed with these goals in mind will last a long time and will fit in with all other styles. Shaker-inspired pieces are traditional, but they’re not country or Colonial, which can look heavy or dated. Shaker furniture works beautifully with some of the current trends, especially farmhouse and Scandinavian references. They share a light, clean, utilitarian quality and a focus on pieces that can serve many purposes over time. Our Shaker Lingerie Chest, for instance, can be used as a dresser in a bedroom, but is narrow enough that it also works in a hallway or a library. It’s quiet and elegant in cherry, and it matches well with other wood furniture styles.
All of our wood pieces, but in particular our Shaker, Scandinavian, and live-edge styles (where the natural bark line of the wood is left exposed), work well with an industrial look — the wood is warming and the contrast between it and elements like metal and concrete is rich. If your décor is sleek and modern, even mid-century with vivid colors and plastics, wood provides an accent and a grounding quality. Everything we sell is, in a sense, Shaker-inspired because it is minimalist and follows basic Shaker principles, which are always in style.
Q: In what ways are those principles evident in your designs?
JL: Our Modern Shaker Bed is our contemporary interpretation of a Shaker bed. It has an understated quality that reminds us of traditional Shaker beds while appealing to modern sensibilities. We chose to weave the headboard using Shaker tape (a strong, cotton, ribbon-like ticking), an obvious nod to Shaker furniture. We also chose the color green for the tape used on the display bed in our showrooms. This is a subtler reference to the Shakers, as their beds were required by the 1845 Millennial Laws — internal rules governing all Shaker communities— to be painted green. The body of the bed is made of rift-sawn oak, which is cut perpendicular to the rings of the tree, creating a very strong and beautiful board. The Shakers wouldn’t typically have used rift-sawn wood, but we love that it produces a grain that looks like an expanse of warm sand.
The turnings on the legs of our High Mast Bed are directly inspired by the Alfred Chair, which is an authentic Shaker chair we produce in collaboration with Tappan Chair Co. and the Sabbathday Lake Shakers. When it was first designed, the drawing of the headboard reminded us of sailcloth, so I contacted Sea Bags and asked if they would collaborate on creating unique headboards from repurposed sails. The body of the bed is solid maple, which, together with its high posts and sailcloth headboard, channels Maine’s early seafaring history and gives the bed an ethereal look, like a sailboat in the mist. These two beds are not meant to be reproductions of Shaker furniture, but rather clean, modern pieces with several historical references. That’s the fun in our designs.
Q: What should buyers of Shaker-inspired furniture look for?
JL: Again, I would emphasize utility, quality, and simplicity. Utility is easy: A piece should serve the purpose for which it was built. Avoid trendy designs, as they often emphasize form over function. As far as quality, look for solid wood joinery, such as mortise-and-tenon, which connects wood to wood, typically at a 90-degree angle, or dovetail joinery, a traditional woodworking technique whereby a set of ‘pins’ on one board interlock with corresponding ‘tails’ on another board, forming a sturdy and attractive joint. The furniture itself should be made primarily of solid wood for strength and durability. We are particularly focused on building our pieces as close to home as possible in woods like cherry, walnut, maple, oak, and ash. Simplicity is a matter taste. The Shakers required it, Scandinavian designers pursued it in its purest form, and we promote it for the peacefulness it brings to your home.