Master craftsman Stephen Barlow has made furniture for more than 30 years, as did his father before that, and his grandfather before that.
He gravitated toward making Shaker-style furniture for several reasons — its simplicity at the top of the list.
“The great thing about the clean lines of Shaker designs is they fit in with multiple (types of decor),” notes Barlow, owner of Shaker Style Handcrafted Furniture since 1989.
Barlow started his business out of his garage in Peterborough and had to move to a large barn in Harrisville because of steady growth. The barn allows Barlow to have a large woodshop and cozy showroom on Chesham Road, just off Route 101, where a blue tourism sign directs traffic. Barlow co-owns the business with his wife, Cheryl, who handles sales.
Shakerism, a Protestant religious sect, was founded in 18th-century England, spreading to the U.S. in 1774. At their height in 1840, more than 6,000 Shakers lived in 19 communal villages from New England to Ohio and Kentucky — one of the remaining Shakers died three years ago at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire.
It was their divine duty to strive for perfection in everything they did, and they believed God was in the details of their work and the quality of their craftsmanship.
“They were largely self-sustaining; everything was made for a certain purpose,” says Barlow.
What sets Shaker furniture apart, he explains, was its delicate elegance combined with its strength.
He pointed out he isn’t a maker of reproductions, however.
“I tend toward modern and less traditional,” with a nod to the Shaker aesthetic, he says. “My designs are inspired by the Shakers.”
His furniture — he created a catalog that includes dining and bedroom sets, stools, accent tables and home office furniture, among other items — is primarily made from solid cherry lumber.
“Cherry has become synonymous with Shaker furniture,” he says. “It’s warm, it richens with age, and it accentuates the character of the piece.”
Most of the cherry with which he crafts is from Pennsylvania and upstate New York, with some coming from New England only because the growing conditions for cherry aren’t as favorable here.
Ten to 20% of Shaker Handcrafted Furniture is custom orders. Still, the majority of pieces come from the catalog, much of which is represented in the showroom, which is now open by appointment. The showroom also serves as a local art and craft gallery, showcasing the work of local artisans.
The Barlows have seen an uptick in online sales this pandemic year, which they attribute to people spending more time at home and focusing on home improvement projects.
“We sold every desk we had,” notes Cheryl, referring to the surge in people working from home and creating a home office.
She plans to ramp up the business’ online presence by adding an option for customers to pay a deposit for pieces in the showroom that are ready for pick-up or delivery.
Their most significant customer base is right here in New England, with some pockets around the country, including Virginia, Washington, D.C. and California.
Some customers they’ve had for decades.
“In some cases, we have the next generation of customers coming in,” says Cheryl.
The couple is looking forward to selling their goods at next year’s League of N.H. Craftsmen Fair in Sunapee, once artisans can do so safely.
There are important reasons they chose to operate their business in the Monadnock Region.
“There are so many artists and craftspeople here,” notes Barlow.
His wife agrees.
“There’s a real appreciation for hard work and craftsmanship,” she says, “and there’s a superior quality of life living and working and creating for yourself in your own space.”
Nicole S. Colson writes from Swanzey, New Hampshire.