Duncan Phyfe: America’s Finest Cabinetmaker (1770-1854), considered the most important American cabinetmaker of the first half of the nineteenth century, worked at Partition Street (renamed Fulton Street in 1816) in New York City from 1793 through 1847.  Famous and highly successful, Phyfe ran a large workshop and produced furniture throughout his long career in all the latest styles.  As a fashion leader, Phyfe introduced New York to a succession of styles inspired by the renowned designers Robert Adam (1728-1792), George Hepplewhite (d.1786) and Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) in England, and the Directoire, Empire and Restauration periods in France.  His clients included the great merchant and banking elite of the city, as well as wealthy and discriminating buyers from Boston to New Orleans.  An innovative designer, superior craftsman and carver, Phyfe’s name is synonymous with the finest New York furniture of the period.

Phyfe emigrated from Scotland with his family as a boy, initially moving to the Albany area.  After much scholarly research, where he apprenticed remains a mystery.  He opened a shop in New York City as early as 1793 and by 1800 was well established in a cluster of properties on Fulton Street, now the site of the new Santiago Calatrava-designed Transportation Hub in the shadow of One World Trade Center.

His success in a city of hundreds of skilled cabinetmakers was the result of superior craftsmanship, business acumen and advanced and sophisticated design, often successfully combining characteristics of the latest French and English furniture design into a single piece.  This resulted in both beautiful and uniquely American furniture, and is why Duncan Phyfe is America’s finest cabinetmaker.

Phyfe’s work has been celebrated, studied and collected for over a hundred years.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited work by Phyfe in its 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration and mounted its first exhibition exclusively dedicated to the artist’s work in 1922.  “Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe” was the first exhibition ever held in an art museum on the work of a single cabinetmaker.[1]  His work is now in the collection of almost every major art museum in the United States that preserves American decorative arts and design.  Scholarship has also advanced.  After a ten-year study, The Metropolitan Museum returned to Phyfe recently, mounting the exhibition, “Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York” in 2011 and published a state-of-the-art catalogue by curator Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown.  The exhibition travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2012.

Carswell Rush Berlin has contributed considerably to the scholarship on Duncan Phyfe.  Our firm lent three major pieces to the recent Phyfe exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Kenny, pls. 37, 39, 51), and four other pieces from our collection are illustrated and discussed in the show’s catalog (Kenny, figs. 93, 94, 134, 136), in addition to the earliest known invoice from Phyfe to a client (Kenny, Appendix I, I).  Importantly, it is our games table (Kenny, p. 84, fig. 93), that established the clear link between documented work by Phyfe for the Brinkerhoff family, c. 1816, and the large group of griffin and eagle-based tables that are among Phyfe’s most important works (Kenny, pl. 29).  Our own eagle-base games table (see above), is the most successful example of this group.

In May 2000, Carswell Rush Berlin published an article in the Magazine Antiques that linked Phyfe’s firm to a cast-iron table with a marble top and rosewood apron, illustrating that, even towards the end of his illustrious career, he was innovating with materials that had never before been used for domestic interior furnishing in the United States.  Weaving in the story of the buccaneering sea captain and shipping merchant for whom this groundbreaking table was made, the article completes the arc of fascination with the ancient bronze furniture that was excavated at Herculaneum that had sparked the Classical Revival of the 18th century to begin with, connecting it to Phyfe’s use of cast-iron, a modern metal, which would help spawn the Industrial Revolution.  His article, “An Important Rosewood and Cast-Iron Gueridon Attributed to Duncan Phyfe and Sons” can be read here.[2]

[1] Peter M. Kenny and Michael K Brown Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker  in New York (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011), 6.

[2] Carswell Rush Berlin, “An Important Rosewood and Cast-Iron Gueridon Attributed to Duncan Phyfe and Son”, The Magazine Antiques Vol. CLVII, No.5 (May, 2000), 770-777.

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