Shaker Style for Today

A local Shaker-inspired kitchen finds beauty in utility
all photos by sabrina baloun

Decorator Joan Ross chose the clean Shaker aesthetic for the kitchen of her 1800s-era farmhouse kitchen.

The Shakers, a charismatic offshoot of the Quakers, were originally from northwest England. They first came to New Hampshire in 1792, settling in Canterbury, with a second community established in Enfield in 1793. Both are now museums that welcome the public, and each is worth a visit. During their height in the mid-19th century, the Shakers were widely known for their religious fervor, communal lifestyle, beliefs in pacifism and equality of the sexes (revolutionary at the time) and, probably most notably, the practice of celibacy. Their arts and crafts reflected their guiding principles of simplicity, utility and honesty.

That clean Shaker aesthetic — emphasizing the inherent beauty of form, material and quality — continues to find a home in current interiors without looking the least bit dated. And probably more than in any other room, you will find the Shakers’ ongoing influence in the kitchen.

Because of its simple lines, the Shaker cabinet style lends itself well to kitchens ranging from very traditional to modern. Most people today think of a Shaker-style kitchen as having a particular five-piece door front with a flat recessed panel. Drawers are made to match or have plain slab fronts.

Few Shaker style kitchens in recent years have struck me as much as that of Joan Ross, decorator and writer of the hugely popular blog “For the Love of a House.” Eight years ago, she and her husband, Dan, fell in love with an 1850 farmhouse in the Monadnock Region. In a leap of faith, they moved from Dallas, Texas, with their sights set on updating it for comfort, while lovingly rehabilitating its antique character for future generations.

You can especially see this tireless care in the kitchen. Like the Shakers, Ross has created a space with an eye for beauty that is, above all, a servant to utility and not of passing trends.

Left: A dining area features durable but low-cost items from Lowe's and Ikea. Right: Deep drawers can hold everything from dishes to heavy Le Creuset Dutch ovens.

She began with classic white (Benjamin Moore’s White Dove, OC-17) for the cabinetry and real beadboard backsplash. The solid wood ceiling is made of 6-inch V-matched boards, which are painted with a pearl finish — a little trick Ross has used all over the house to make her ceilings look taller by reflecting the light.

Function and workflow were paramount in this kitchen’s design. The stove, refrigerator and sink work in an efficient triangle. Ross employed base cabinet drawers to hold everything, even her super-heavy Le Creuset Dutch ovens. “These drawers are so durable, and they allow me to see all my pots and dishes without having to bend over and rummage through dark lower cabinets,” says Ross. Glass-front upper cabinets keep serving dishes easily in view. The wavy glass was recycled from original windows in the house that were no longer needed following the renovation.

The countertops are soapstone and marble, classic materials that patina with age and are, most importantly, durable and utilitarian. Soapstone is non-porous, naturally antibacterial and stain-resistant. It is impervious to chemicals, acids and heat. Marble remains cool to the touch due to its natural conductivity and is a favorite surface for bakers.

“I once received an email from a reader saying she really wanted soapstone, but everyone was telling her it was impractical, used only for magazine shoots or by people who don’t really cook,” says Ross. “That made me laugh. Soapstone has been used for over a hundred years in the kitchen! In fact, that’s why I chose it … because of its historical New England reference and the fact I knew it would stand the test of time.”

Both soapstone and marble have their faults, or as Ross sees them, foibles. Neither is exactly maintenance-free. Soapstone can chip and needs waxing. Marble etches or shows pale gray marks when it comes into contact with anything acidic. However, she did her homework, knew the ups and downs of both, and pressed onward, Bar Keepers Friend in hand.

Functionality was an important factor. Though the style is traditional, this is definitely a modern kitchen.

“I first fell in love with marble on our trips to France,” says Ross. “Walking into pâtisseries and restaurants and seeing those floors and counters that had been there for a hundred years was such a beautiful sight. I personally value the wear and tear and ‘signs of life’ that a surface such as marble can provide to a space.”

As the kitchen had to be gutted for various reasons, new floors were installed. Ross chose random-width eastern white pine from Carlisle Wide Plank Floors, a company that just happens to be located up the road in Stoddard. “We loved knowing that, just like the original floors, the new floors were also from New Hampshire,” Ross says.

The traditional gooseneck with bridge faucet is from Perrin & Rowe, and the 36-inch farmhouse sink is from Rohl. In addition to antique hardware, Ross used bin and handle pulls from Restoration Hardware. The island pendants are antique. Natural touches such as the ticking stripe sink skirt (which visually breaks up the expanse of white base cabinetry), bamboo window shades and a basket dog bed bring additional texture and warmth to the space.

Ross found budget items to complement the more expensive fixed pieces. A seagrass rug from Lowe’s and Henriksdal dining chairs from Ikea have stood up well during the eight years since the kitchen’s completion.

“In renovating [a kitchen], you must have a very clear vision of what you want your space to ‘feel’ and ‘look’ like, because at every single turn, some salesperson/contractor/carpenter/painter/plumber/etc. will try to talk you into their vision,” advises Ross.

The Shakers had their share of naysayers, yet now, look how we admire what they left behind. I’m thankful for their vision and the vision of people like Ross who show us just how timeless and lovely a clean, simple, and useful kitchen can be.