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Practical Passion

Impressive private collection of Shaker furniture on display at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

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HAVE A SEAT Shaker designs emphasize simplicity, beauty and utility.
  • HAVE A SEAT Shaker designs emphasize simplicity, beauty and utility.

'There were real, living Shakers when we first started collecting," notes Toby Rose, her voice as rich and textured as an oak breadboard, "but there aren't any Shakers now. They're gone. All that's left of them is their furniture."

Though Toby and her husband Ben Rose aren't the only folks who collect authentic Shaker furniture and other items, they do rank among the art form's most exuberant fans. A large number of handcrafted Shaker items now reside in their home in San Francisco—all but about a hundred pieces, that is. Those pieces are currently on display at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

The two-month exhibition, titled "Shaker Stories: From the Collection of Benjamin H. Rose III," looks at the origins of the Shakers' uniquely American design aesthetic, a sleek, streamlined style that has had a profound influence on artists, architects, woodworkers and furniture designers.

Long before LSD-dropping hippies experimented with living together on rural, clothing-optional communes, the concept of a working communal society was pretty much owned, in America, by the Shakers. Officially known as the United Society of Believers, the Shakers—so called for the ecstatic, full-bodied fervor of their worship services—first established themselves on the East Coast in the 1800s, at one point claiming as many as 6,000 members living in sprawling, mostly celibate settlements from Massachusetts to Kentucky. After the Civil War, the movement slowly went into decline, leaving a legacy of pacifism, simple living and, as it so happens, brilliantly designed furniture.

"This really doesn't look like any other kind of furniture made by anybody else," says Toby Rose.

The Roses began collecting almost half a century ago, never dreaming their collection would ever gain the distinction, or enormous size, of what it's become.

"My husband and I bought a house in Massachusetts about 45 years ago," Rose explains. "It had seven bedrooms—and no furniture. He'd always been particularly fond of Shaker furniture, so we started collecting the basic things we needed to live with—tables and chairs, a bed, those kinds of things. And on weekends, we went around to antique stores, looking for more."

Working with dealers specializing in Shaker objects and furniture, they eventually amassed one of the largest collections in the state, every piece used daily, the way furniture is meant to be used, in their home.

"I refuse to live in a museum," Rose says with a laugh.

Today, she says, the collecting has pretty much stopped.

"It's so prohibitively expensive now," she says. "And besides, at this point, we couldn't cram another stick of furniture in our house anyway."

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