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Duncan Phyfe Furniture & Biography

In the United States of the early nineteenth century the styles of the French Empire were influencing craftsmen, and eventually replaced the British type that the colony had accepted and employed. In looking at developments of taste in the new democratic republic some account must be given of the work of Duncan Phyfe (sometimes spelt Phyffe, or, according to this site's search engine statistics, even Pfyfe, and Fyfe. Phyfe's father spelled it Fife, to add to the confusion).

Biography

Phyfe was a craftsman of Scottish birth who emigrated to America in 1783, when he was sixteen years of age. He settled in Albany and worked as a cabinet maker, but early in the last decade of the eighteenth century he moved to New York, where, after a few years, he was able to produce furniture with the support of a wealthy clientele, and, on a smaller scale, was to New York what Thomas Chippendale had been to London.

Work Box
Work Box.

Furniture - Two Phases

His early work, that in the Federal era, was strongly influenced by Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture designs, but, in the period known as American Empire French taste began to give him ideas, and the fashions of the Directoire, the Consulate and the early Empire are apparent in his work. He was a superb craftsman, and adopted foreign ideas with all the ease of Sheraton: his rendering of French Empire designs is sometimes extremely skilful. His evident appreciation for fine curves, his real understanding of ornamental values, which exercised a restraining influence on the embellishment of his furniture, and his eye for the decorative quality of wood, have given to his furniture a distinction that is marred only by an occasional hint of bad proportion in some of his tables.

Phyfe Dining Chairs

His chairs possess many characteristic Sheraton touches: backs with cross bars, diagonal bars, reeded and carved, and lyre backs, horseshoe seats, legs ornamented with acanthus, the feet sometimes terminating in paws, are all typical of Phyfe pieces.

Antique Phyfe Chairs
Antique Phyfe Chairs.

Tables

He made an enormous variety of tables, many of the pedestal and drop leaf type, and occasionally serving tables. Sometimes the tables with pedestals are formed by a platform on carved legs which supports crossed lyres which are immediately below the table top. Sometimes four slender columns, carved or fluted, support the table in place of lyres, and another variety has an urn-shaped turned support between the platform and the table top. Serving tables and types corresponding to Pembroke and sofa tables were made by Phyfe.

Side Table
Side Table.

Phyfe Drop Leaf Table
Phyfe Drop Leaf Table.

Phyfe Dining Table
Phyfe Dining Table.

Growth, Success & Decline

A very interesting note on the considerable development of Duncan Phyfe's business and his evident prosperity was given in The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on the occasion of the exhibition of this craftsman's work organised by the Museum. It is said that:

Before 1800 he settled at No. 35 Partition Street, not far from Broadway. As his business grew, we find him increasing his property, first at No. 34 in 1807, then at No. 33 Partition Street in 1811. The original house at No. 35 was still his dwelling, with the salerooms next door at No. 34, and the workshop and warehouse at No. 33. Shortly after Robert Fulton's death, in 1815, measures were taken to open a street from the East to the North River, to be called by his name. About this time Phyfe acquired the house directly across from his saleshop, so that when, in 1816-1817, Partition and Fair Streets the same thoroughfare running east and west of Broadwaywere rechristened Fulton Street, and the houses renumbered, Phyfe's addresses were Nos. 168,170 and 172, with his house at No. 169 opposite. The former dwelling-house then became the warehouse. In this street Phyfe lived and worked, within a stone's throw of St Paul's, and not far from the new City Hallr He saw the city grow far to the north and pass through many changes before he retired from business in 1847, and died at his Fulton Street home in 1854.

Phyfe's best period of design lies between 1790 and 1825, and it shows how servile even great craftsmen had become where questions of fashion were concerned, when we see a designer whose early work was inspired by such masters as Hepplewhite falling into line with the prevailing decadence of taste and trend and producing models that reflected the general lack of appreciation for fine proportions and appropriate ornament.

We may quote again from the article in The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the following paragraph suggests that Duncan Phyfe's instinct for fine craftsmanship and good design was not overpowered as easily as Sheraton's under the strong wine of French Empire fashion:

The heavy, solid lines of the full French Empire style came into vogue, and much of his furniture was of this type, simplified, ornamented in a restrained manner with gilt-bronze, and possessing, in spite of its over-solidity, the qualities of good craftsmanship and material, as well as of intelligent design. With the period of black walnut and so-called "butcher" furniture, he entered with the public of his day on the downward path of bad taste. . . .

By the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, fashion, which can not always be associated with good taste, loomed so large in the eyes of people who furnished their homes in the fashionable cities of Britain and America that it would have been difficult for a craftsman of outstanding genius to introduce good design unless he could also persuade his potential clients that his furniture was first fashionable and trendy. After Sheraton in England, and Phyfe in America, we find no great names associated with furniture making until after 1860. Furnishing becomes an uninspired business, a matter of store-keeping, salesmanship and silly conventions. Duncan Phyfe had held the line against this at least for some time.









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