News & Events
Discover Mid-America January 2011
Duncan Phyfe – A furniture style that has endured
Duncan Phyfe was an historical figure in the early days of this country, and one who then crafted legendary furniture and became on of the most famous names in American cabinetmaking. Citizens of young America considered Phyfe’s work, along with that of Charles-Honore Lannuier, “the pinnacle of taste and sophistication,” according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
However the first look at Phyfe’s fine work does not fully reveal his true impact and influence on early 19th century furniture throughout the United States.
In the 1790s, Phyfe was operating three joiner’s shops and a warehouse in New York City, and thus was producing beautiful regency-style furniture for elegant homes over the entire Atlantic coast. He preferred mahogany from Cuba and Santo Domingo, and for dramatic effect, used veneered panels. Later, rosewood gained his favor.
His work with mahogany chairs and couches, and eventually elaborate tables and sideboards, was so stylistically advanced there was little that others could do but follow.
On the one hand, Phyfe’s thriving operations reached out to employee with scores — if not more — of journeymen laboring to fashion his own unique furniture. Phyfe is credited with incorporating a factory method into his cabinet workshop, employing master craftsmen, journeymen, and apprentices as well as carver, turners and upholsterers. The division of labor was such that each craftsman performed the work he was best trained for. During the peak of his firm’s production, Phyfe also sought to establish agents in different parts of the country. His financial success aided by taking advantage of New York City’s place as a prominent port with the ability to export to foreign markets.
Not surprisingly other furniture makers, aware of the appeal of the functional Phyfe furniture style, were obliged to imitate or copy much of it. While some historians would point to a nearly parallel manufacture of American furniture during that same period, especially in New York, the fluted legs, ringed pedestals, and lyre backs were the early result of the artistic Phyfe touch.
A glimpse of the very prolific Phyfe comes in 1816 in a letter written by a woman to other members of her family, she described his furniture as “so much the rage, it is difficult to get an audience with Mr. Phyfe.”
As cities were established and developed in the Middle West, the stylish and yet practical Phyfe furniture began to gain a bit of the popularity it had attained back east.
Moreover, furniture styles were slow to change in those days, and as the westward movement gained momentum, a settler took their tastes — and in many cases their actual furniture — along with them as they traveled.
The Duncan Phyfe style appears, for example, in the southwest during the 1840s. There was a merging of eastern pioneer styles and that of the earlier Spanish culture in the areas of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The result was often a new version of the seemingly timeless Phyfe designs and craftsmanship.
Coming to America
In 1783, when he arrived in America, Phyfe certainly could have had no dreams of becoming a famed furniture maker. He was only 16 when he and his widowed mother left their native Scotland to settle in this country.
Phyfe was born in the tiny hamlet of Loch Fannich about 30 miles northwest of Inverness. While little had been documented of his early years, it is known that he signed on as an apprentice to a local cabinetmaker soon after the family was settled in Albany, New York. Within four years he was established strongly enough in the trade to open his own shop where he then advertised himself simply as a “joiner”.
Upon reaching the age of majority in 1790, Duncan moved to the city of New York where he once again opened a joiner’s shop at 2 Broad Street, near where the legendary Wall Street runs today. By 1792, he was successful enough to be listed in the city’s directory of enterprising craftsmen.
Romance came to the young Duncan the following year when he met and married Rachel Lowzade, a native of Holland. The two were wed in February of 1793, and it was not long after their marriage that he decided to change the spelling of his last name from Fife to Phyfe.
By at least one account, some of his growing list of clients felt a spelling other than Fife would be more fitting for his business. One customer even offered to him that Fife was far “too ordinary to attract the attention of giddy rich people.”
After a directory listed him in 1794, he moved to larger quarters at 35 Partition Street. It was said the street which ran west from Broadway to the Hudson River, served to ‘partition’ the populous areas of the growing city from the quieter wooded countryside to the north.
Phyfe attracted quite a following among the wealthy and went on to be not only a New York but also a national trendsetter in the dawn of the 19th century. He was perhaps at his strongest from 1810 to 1827 when his classical design in furniture was fully expanded from the existing French Directorie and English Empire offerings.
At the height of his popularity and prosperity he had purchased and converted houses next to his shop, and even constructed a warehouse on the present site of the Hudson Terminal Building where he employed many people to ship his goods.
Family records and historical documents described him as a slightly built and “very plain man, always working and always smoking a short pipe.”
Some say he not only first introduced the concept of the furniture factory to America but as well the full concept of the furniture store. For all of his business sense, Phyfe had few interests beyond his family. He and Rachel had four sons and three daughters, belonged to the Brick Presbyterian Church, and were said to be strict Calvinists.
The staunch family man brought two of his sons, James Duncan and Michael, into the business in 1837, and the firm officially became known as Duncan Phyfe & Sons. Tragically, Michael Phyfe died but a few years later, and the name of the firm was changed again to simply Duncan Phyfe and Son.
Eventually he also brought his brother Lauchlin Phyfe into the business, not as a partner, but as a cabinet-maker and highly skilled wood carver who had been specially trained in Baltimore.
After a time Phyfe expanded his growing business to the point of even sub-contracting out furniture-related manufacturing to other cabinetmakers and joiners in the area. He also contracted with agents in other cities, and added on other businesses in New York, including upholstery and ivory turning.
In the 1820s, he offered, through his newspaper advertisements, “curled hair mattresses, chair and sofa cushions.”
Certainly during his prime Phyfe’s major clients were the leading citizens of New York, Philadelphia and other major cities of the eastern coast. Names on his sales records included New Jersey governor William Livingston, emperor Henri Christopher of Haiti, DeWitt Clinton and John Jacob Astor.
After some 200 years, the fame of Phyfe undoubtedly still remains with the outstanding furniture which he created and crafted within the confines of his shops.
It is accepted that his early works were certainly influenced by the likes of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, but overall Phyfe went beyond that. He and his workers instilled a tradition and style of furniture that has endured.
The furniture of Phyfe, from secretaries to window seats, ranks well at the top of any list of American classic furniture today. Any of it brings lofty sums when sold at leading auction houses of the United States.
One major biographical work on the master craftsman observed, “He kept alive the classic tradition well into the 20th century, and did more than any other to postpone the decadence of style that was inevitable with the development of the machine age.”
Around 1847, Phyfe sold his interest in the substantial business and more or less retired from work. However, even in his later years he continued to live in a small home near the original shop. Ironically, the address than made Phyfe famous was eventually changed from the old Partition Street to Fulton Street — in honor of the famed inventor Robert Futon.
Duncan Phyfe died in August of 1854, and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He was 86.
Robert Reed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bruce Rodgers also contributed to this article.