Duncan Phyfe (1768 – 1854) was an extraordinary New York City cabinetmaker who holds a prominent place among those who made significant contributions to the design and style of furniture for some of the wealthiest figures of his time in New York and beyond. New York became the capital of the United States in 1785 and that set the city on a path to become a world power during the first half of the 19th century. The city was strategically located as a gateway for European imports and domestic exports. This commercial activity supported a cosmopolitan way of life that emulated the highest society abroad.

The burgeoning commercial activity created a population that indulged in stylish goods, both domestic and foreign, sparing no expense in the furnishing and decoration of their homes. These wealthy New Yorkers purchased numerous objects on their Grand Tour trips to England and the Continent but also patronized New York retailers and artisans. At the beginning of the 19th century, New York began to set the standard of style and taste for the rest of the country.

Duncan Phyfe, a beneficiary of the sophisticated taste of New Yorkers, was unquestionably one of the master cabinetmakers. He, along with others, used English and Continental prototypes, created uniquely and indigenous American versions of various Neo-Classical styles that would define the aesthetics of the era. Phyfe’s career, which spanned 50 years, set up shop in lower Manhattan near the Hudson River to facilitate transport of the lumber he needed. The highest quality materials enhanced his chairs; some of the most beautiful produced in the United States between 1805-15.

To describe Phyfe’s signature work during his “best” period is to talk about scrolled crest rails on chairs, saber shaped legs on pillar-and-claw card tables, elegant gilt decorative carvings and a refined elegance for his work.

The Hirshel and Adler Gallery on the SW corner of 57th Street in New York has a wonderful exhibition of Phyfe furniture and some of his contemporaries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a Duncan Phyfe exhibit closing in May. A scholarly book on Phyfe accompanies the MET exhibit. I am inspired by Duncan Phyfe furniture for its use of exceptional figured woods, its graceful scrolls, gilt decoration and perfect scale.

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