American Master

A new exhibition on Duncan Phyfe reasserts his place as an early virtuoso of furniture design. Here, five contemporary designers reflect on his enduring influence.

Renowned in his lifetime for his elegant designs and superior craftsmanship, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) remains America’s most famous cabinetmaker, and arguably its first star designer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s superb exhibition, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, revisits his career with nearly 100 works from private and public collections. A poor immigrant when he arrived in America from Scotland in the early 1780s, Phyfe became a highly successful businessman, producing furniture for America’s moneyed elite during the first half of the nineteenth century. His work reflected a constantly evolving neoclassical style—from early Grecian, with its pillar-and-claw pedestal tables, to the more opulent American Empire, and, finally, the sleek minimalism of French Restauration furniture design.

It’s not the first time the Met has celebrated Phyfe. The museum’s 1922 show on the furniture maker established the designer as an American pioneer. “Through the Met’s efforts, he gained iconic status and came to be considered ‘America’s Chippendale,’ ” says Peter M. Kenny, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, who organized the show with Michael Brown of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “The 1920s was an age of heroes and also a time of extreme nationalism. Hence the desire to discover our own authentic American craftsmen who could rival Europe’s best designers and cabinetmakers.”

Phyfe signed and labeled few of his furnishings, so it was a challenge to properly attribute his work. The Met curators spent six years on the task, and they have done a remarkable job. They even tracked down objects related to Phyfe, such as his silver snuffbox, gold spectacles, and tools, and shed some light on his personality and work habits. “According to family tradition provided by his grandsons, Phyfe was extremely industrious and sober,” Kenny says. “Everyone in his household was expected to be in bed by 9 p.m.” As a businessman, he could be a taskmaster. In 1819, Phyfe’s workers went on a walkout after a pay cut, and when two apprentices ran away, he offered a five dollar reward for the return of one, but just six cents for the return of the other. (These and other details are fleshed out in an excellent catalog published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press.)

Phyfe’s life and work certainly resonate with a contemporary design audience. “His furniture’s distinctive style and superior quality, his marketing strategy targeting a well-heeled clientele, and his business savvy and tenacity as a designer and manufacturer prove that the formula for making it in New York City really hasn’t changed much over the last 200 years,” Kenny says. With that in mind, we asked five notable designers to pick their favorite Phyfe pieces, and tell us why his work still speaks to them today.

Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinet-maker in New York is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 6, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from June 24 to September 9.

Jeffrey Bernett
A chaise longue is a very particular type of furniture; it’s not necessarily the first piece you’d buy for a home. When I have designed chaise longues, I have always seen them as something to take you out of the active life, to help you transition to a different state of mind. Phyfe’s day-bed is fairly ornamental, but it was extremely sophisticated for its time.
He had a really high standard of craftsmanship, and it comes through in the lines of this piece. And there’s the color—when you use red, you’re always trying to evoke an emotional response. I can easily see this couch as a strong accent piece in a room from the 1800s.

In America, we got really good at design for mass production in the 1930s, but is that the only direction we want to go in? When I learned to make furniture, I actually built a Chippendale chair. I broke the chair down afterward, but its ball-and-claw foot still sits on a shelf in my studio—it takes real artistry, and we’re beginning to appreciate that now. I think Phyfe’s work has ties to the context and challenges of what we are trying to do today. It was not just his sense of quality; he was also a successful entrepreneur. At a time when New York only had a population of about a million people, he had more than one hundred employees. That’s pretty impressive. —as told to Avinash Rajagopal

Jonathan Olivares
What struck me about Duncan Phyfe’s work was how little of it I had seen before, yet how familiar it already was. Phyfe’s construction techniques and forms are present in so many prominent modern-furniture designs. His nesting tables from 1841 exhibit the efficiency and economy of space that became a near obsession for the designers of the twentieth century. The stacking chairs, from Alvar Aalto’s model 11/611 to David Rowland’s 40/4, possess the same lightness and spirit that are embodied in Phyfe’s nesting tables. I can’t look at the vertical wooden members that span the tables’ side frames without thinking of the aluminum members that join the side frames of the Eames Chaise—same function, same proportion. Marcel Breuer and Joseph Albers each designed nesting tables, which reveals how little the social habits of the living room changed between the 1840s and 1920s, and how Phyfe’s typology was rooted in firmly established behavioral needs.

Design, like any craft, allows its practitioners to speak to each other through messages embedded in the works they produce. This type of communication occurs silently, through aspects of the designs themselves, and can happen across generations and between designers who could never know each other. Many of Phyfe’s messages are strong, clearly legible, and well worth intercepting.

Alexander Gorlin
Luxuriant yet sober, this bed embodies Phyfe’s extraordinary synthesis of opposites, reflecting the developing culture of the young American nation. In the same year, 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson published the essay “Self-Reliance,” which encouraged American artists to “Insist on yourself; never imitate,” and asked, “Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?”

Indeed, compared with Phyfe’s work of ten years earlier, with its gilded flourishes and lion’s feet, the blunt plinths upon which this bed stands are as plain as any Shaker or Amish furniture of the period. The rosewood-veneer frame is a flat facade with the slightest hint of detail; the beam sits on two pneumatically scaled blocks lifted barely above the floor. Yet, peeling off on either side are two sensual, lyre-like frames for the mattress, a prelude to the spectacular drape of the curtains above. A canopy of sensual crimson silk curtains falls from an urn-like wooden ring, parting to reveal the odalisque in her nakedness below. For this Grecian bed is certainly feminine in its aspect, Hester Prynne in all her scarlet-letter grandeur, the flip side of the repressed puritanical American character.

And yet, a completely opposite image is recalled, with the bed as a tentlike room within a room, an aedicula, as in the painting Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca. The Virgin is framed by a similarly draped curtain, representing the Tabernacle in Jerusalem, and is supplanting the Old Testament with the New through the birth of Jesus from within the open slit of her dress. So Phyfe plays upon rich images of a contradictory nature: flamboyance and repression, the ancient and the modern, and the birth of a new country and culture from within the womb of the Old World across the Atlantic.

Robert A.M. Stern
The truth of the matter is, I looked through the catalog and I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like. His sofas are works of sculpture. They may also be places to sit, but they’re not exactly about comfort as we know about it in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, I can think of a number of very important contemporary designers who design sofas that are not exactly user-friendly.

Phyfe is a marvelous craftsman and an inspired designer. His inspirations are rooted in his contemporaries—obviously, he did borrow from English cabinetmakers and their handbooks—but with a growing sureness of hand, he was able to explore the architecture of Greece and then make it his own. His craftsmanship cannot be overlooked: the carving, the intricacy combined with the robustness of the shapes, the delicacy of the detail, the wonderful little feet on the sofa, the scroll of the constructed arm and the way the round cushion nestles into it. They’re like little pieces of a machine. You can almost imagine that you could run some kind of newspaper between the constructed arm and the round bolster. It’s perfection.

The argument goes that the Greek Revival style appealed to Americans because of the Greek revolution for independence in 1822. But four decades earlier, during the American Revolution, we also associated Greece with democracy. So there were these many associative values that went with the style. People began to criticize Phyfe as his career evolved, his tastes changed, and more early-Victorian tastes kicked in. He may have been a classicist at heart, but he was a good craftsman and a smart businessman, and that’s very American. —as told to Martin C. Pedersen

Jamie Drake
This sofa table has an extremely elegant line, with what are certainly the most beautiful figured-mahogany veneers, which is extremely attractive to me. The simplicity of this later Phyfe piece is delightfully modern, and it would be very easy to use in a contemporary space. Phyfe’s restraint and elegance of line is always something that appeals to me.

We’ve worked with a lot of Duncan Phyfe antiques, especially for the historical restorations that we’ve done, like the restoration, renovation, and redecoration of Gracie Mansion, which we oversaw in 2002. We worked with pieces in the house’s existing collection, in addition to making some new purchases. This table specifically reminds me of a Phyfe Restauration-style piece we installed in front of a sofa in the library, as they did in the nineteenth century. It was a nineteenth-century cocktail table, if you will, made of beautiful mahogany with a white marble top, and it had a similar simplicity of line. It would have been used to serve tea. The coffee or cocktail tables that we use these days are usually 15 to 18 inches high. If we were to use a 26-inch-high one, like this sofa table, then we’d make sure that the sofa was married with a seat height on the higher side, and often, with a little less depth and more of a settee proportion.

I’ve certainly known Duncan Phyfe’s work since my days at Parsons, if not before. In my third apartment, in the early 1980s, I had a 1920s or ’30s reproduction of a Duncan Phyfe Grecian-style sofa that was upholstered in a thick white Jack Lenor Larsen silk.—as told to Paul Makovsky

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