Modern Heirlooms: Chilton Furniture
Jen and Jared Levin find a roadmap for their future—and a way to preserve the past— as the new owners of Chilton Furniture
White clapboard houses rest easily next to faded brick buildings, which, despite their considerable age, do not slump but stand as tall and strong as on the day they were built. Along the side of the road, orange daylilies nod their heads in the sun. Just as I decide this place is almost too picturesque to be believed, the sound of cows bellowing nearby interrupts my thoughts and completes the bucolic scene.
Jen and Jared Levin first soaked in the beauty of Sabbathday Lake in the summer of 2014. The New York couple was looking to buy a business in Maine, and they had set their sights on Chilton Furniture. After spending 10 years at home raising the kids, Jen was ready to reenter the workforce. But she didn’t want to return to her work as a lawyer; she was ready for a bigger change, preferably one that would get the family up to Maine, where the couple vacationed every summer. Jen had also attended Bates College and spent her summers as a child in Ocean Park, where her family once owned a home. They had wanted to move to Maine for years, but the timing never seemed quite right.
“When we found Chilton, we knew it was perfect. We have stacks and stacks of design magazines at our house. We’re not hoarders,” Jared laughs, “but Jen has been reading about design since she was a teenager.” Seeing that listing, the Levins agree, was like finding a roadmap for their futures. “We knew right away that this was going to lead us down the right path for our lives.”
For Jen, there was something wonderfully familiar about the Shakers’ artistic vision. “When I was young, my parents were very interested in Shaker furniture, so I grew up with this aesthetic built in,” she says. “I also always liked midcentury design. In reading about the Shakers, I learned that a lot of midcentury designers based their designs on Shaker furniture. It makes perfect sense, once you see it. There is a logical reason behind their similarities: they both believe in form following function.”
However, there was much more to learn before the purchase could go through. It wasn’t enough to understand the historic roots of this particularly American aesthetic. A good business proposal wasn’t insurance enough either— not for Bill Martens, the former owner of Chilton. Martens encouraged the Levins to do something more: he wanted them to meet the Shakers.
Martens had forged a relationship with the Shaker community over several years of collaboration and education. According to Michael Graham, the director at Sabbathday Lake, Martens approached the Shakers with a desire to learn about their culture and community so that he could pass this information on to his customers. “We found him to be very genuine, right from the start,” Graham recalls. “This facilitated a trusting relationship that ended up moving into a tangible realm where we could use our respective talents to collaborate on a project that represents us both.” More than that, Martens became friends with United Society of Shakers elder Brother Arnold and the other Shakers. Not only did their business interests align, but their values did, too.
Fortunately, Martens felt that Jen and Jared Levin were the right people to take over Chilton and carry on this rich relationship. Now, Jen and Jared speak of Brother Arnold and Michael Graham like old friends. Jen’s face lights up as she talks about Sabbathday Lake. She is effusive in her praise of Shaker workmanship. “They use only solid wood and highlight the natural beauty of the wood without many adornments,” she explains. Inside the Chilton Furniture store in Scarborough, Jen and Jared show me pieces of Shaker-style furniture, as well as the only modern Shaker chairs on the market today. “Feel this?” She touches a chair, stroking it slowly. “It’s so beautiful, it almost feels alive.”
The chair in question features a tall, ergonomically designed back that conforms to the shape of the spine. To my untrained eye, it does look like it could be midcentury modern or of Scandinavian origin, with its bright red paint and clean lines. But this is classic Shaker, created by Adam Nudd-Homeyer at Tappan Chairs according to the original blueprints from the 1830s, using authentic nineteenth-century tools, many of which had been with the Tappan chair company for almost 200 years. Jen’s right. It is beautiful, and I tell her as much.
“It’s beautiful because it is useful,” Jen clarifies. “Not the other way around.” She directs my attention to a trestle table. While Chilton Furniture does sell several chairs based on historical Shaker designs, the bulk of the inventory is Shaker- style furniture and Shaker-inspired pieces. “Shakers loved the trestle table because they lived in large communities and would traditionally all dine together,” she explains. “See the legs below? They are positioned that way so you could pull up benches, so that everyone would have a space at the table.” While this piece isn’t a traditional Shaker piece—it was, in fact, designed by Jen Levin herself—it draws from Shaker traditions and builds on them. Using the form-follows-function equation, the Levins are working to create a line of original, graceful furniture that will last for generations. They want their pieces, like the Shaker originals, to be heirlooms.
The Levins believe strongly in keeping money within the Maine economy, in boosting up Maine makers and artisans. Since acquiring the business last September, the Levins have significantly increased Chilton’s offerings of locally built furniture.
Looking forward, the Levins have set several goals for Chilton. “Some of the things that we are most proud of, and this has been a very deliberate process, include our relationship with Sabbathday Lake and our commitment to selling products made in the U.S.,” says Jared. “For Jen and me, it is very important to feature things that are made in Maine. Maine has a longstanding reputation for craftsmanship. From both an environmental and financial standpoint, made in Maine is a good thing. And it’s just good karma.”
Just because the Levins are committed to honoring the past doesn’t mean that they are stuck there. They have brought in many pieces by artisans that feature a distinctly modern, global sensibility. The result is an interesting combination of old and new, a beauty of contrasts that shines from the oiled wood of gazelle-like chairs and the rough barn wood tables. Despite subtle differences in design, all these pieces are made with the same principles in mind. Primarily made with solid wood, Chilton furniture is built to last and (just as important) to withstand the mercurial nature of design trends. “The Shakers have this saying, and I know I’m going to mess it up, but: ‘Build everything as if you have a thousand years to live. Build everything as if you were going to die tomorrow.’” Jen pauses, “To me, that means you should build pieces that you love and with passion, but build them to last.” For one couple, these are more than words of wisdom passed down from a religious leader. They’re an outline for Chilton, a simple guideline for creating a values-driven business. This is their roadmap. And finally, in late August of this year, they followed it all the way to a new home in Maine.