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Duncan Fife At The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

04/03/2012

Around 1790 or so a young man named Duncan Fife moved to New York City. Born in Scotland in 1770 in the early 1780's his family emigrated to Albany in upstate New York. He had apprenticed as a joiner and cabinetmaker and like so many people before and after him, had come to New York City to make his fortune.

After a short time working for others he started his own company in 1795. He soon dropped the word "joiner" from his business listing and became a "cabinet maker". "Fife" became "Phyfe". In the melting pot of the city he married a woman of Portuguese Jewish descent and started a family. In the next few decades he built a sophisticated, successful cabinetmaking business that marked him as the most famous woodworker of 19th century New York City.

At its height Phyfe's managed a large and skilled workforce. He built for both custom and stock orders. He had a large export business. The company shipped furniture all over the Americas. The work was to a very high level of craft. He invested his profits in other business and had substantial real estate holdings. He imported lumber for himself and for sale and the finest mahogany imported into the United States were called "Phyfe logs" because he tried to buy up the entire supply of the best wood being shipped in. He was very much a part of the business community and belonged to numerous societies and groups.

In the 1840's his style of furniture went out of favor and his furniture making business went bankrupt. He died in 1854 and is buried in the family vault a few blocks from our warehouse.

Right now, until May, there is a giant, well deserved, exhibit featuring Duncan Phyfe at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. (No pictures were allowed).

His reputation as the premier furniture designer of his age was solidified by two early exhibits at the museum. A 1911 exhibit of New York area furniture makers, and a solo 1922 exhibit which was the first exhibit in any museum that featured a single cabinetmaker. The companion book to that show, "Furniture Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe" by Charles Over Cornelius is available as a free download.

While the exhibit is comprehensive, for me it not only highlights the Phyfe style, it also shows his limitations. What I see in the exhibit isn't a grand designer, but a master businessman whose success was due to a fundamental understanding of his customers and designs that embraced a new middle class in New York and the Americas in general. Phyfe understood how the market for furniture was changing. His work has an understanding of the customer that has implications today.

His style was heavily influenced by what was going on in France and England, but he didn't try to produce either the most expensive, fanciest furniture on the market or embrace the austere work of a joiner. His restrained yet well made decorative work was made to appeal to a new upper middle class of merchant. These are not monumental pieces for show, or pieces designed for giant spaces but furniture designed to show luxury on a smaller scale (New Yorkers, even wealthy ones, at the time would have lived in townhouses about 12-25 feet wide, with fairly small rooms).

Phyfe's workshop was a production shop in several buildings with many employees. This was no craft shop or local artist producing a few well meaning pieces. This was production. He was building a business, supplying a demand for elegant furniture, not being nostalgic about either form or fabrication. One piece in the show is a clear reminder that Phyfe had his foot in the future of production, not in the past of the craftsman. An 1835 pier table is shown with one leg off. The leg was attached not by a long tenon with the rails mortised in, but bolted on with an iron nut and bolt, much like you would see today in factory made furniture. While Phyfe and the people working for him must have been master craftsman what they made was less a craft object than a manufactured factory item for a modern customer.

When you look at details like this you feel another prick in the wishful thinking balloon of the mythology of cabinetmaking as a genteel craft of the 18th and 19th century. Phyfe ran a successful business, enabled by his craft training, but made successful by his business acumen and attention to modern methods of construction. Of course we should also takeaway from this the comfort of knowing that if we decide to make something and diverge from the technologies available in 1800 - we are following in a fine tradition of cabinetmakers like Phyfe.

The exhibit is large and comprehensive. I didn't know much about Phyfe's furniture, and I ended up buying the exhibition book about the show so I would have pictures of everything, but one thing the book doesn't convey is the overall scale of his work. It's small. The chairs are mostly armless, the desks are small, even the dining room table they had in the exhibit wasn't massive. There is a certain air of practicality about his stuff that you don't see in larger over the top French or English pieces of the time. This of course go back to what I said above about who his customers were. The effect however might be a blueprint for modern furniture that shows craft and detail, but it scaled for modern living.

Note: Previously I have written about his toolbox which is also included in the exhibit.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 4
04/03/2012tico vogt 
Nice overview, thanks. I particularly like the "wishful thinking balloon of the mythology of cabinetmaking as a genteel craft of the 18th and 19th century."
04/03/2012Dave Jeske 
Thanks Joel. Some interesting observations concerning the construction methods. I have not seen any of Phyfe's furniture in person to know the level of craftsmanship that was present compared to the "craftsmanship" of today's production fine furniture. He must have lost touch with the customer or decided to ignore them as the styles and trends of the day shifted.
04/07/2012Joe F 
Is it possible that the bolted on table legs wwere not so much a compromise in craftsmanship, but more practical in nature?. I would imagine that to get a dining table into a NYC brownstone would, by necessity, require the ability to break the table down. In my 1940's colonial I couldn't even move a small dining table into the house with the legs attached.
04/07/2012joel http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com
Joe,
I don't actually think so as the specific piece is fairly small and would go up a staircase easily. But I also don't think Phyfe considered the construction a compromise. He we simply using the newest, perfectly sound, technique available to him - it just wasn't traditional. What he wasn't doing is being a slave to the past and the lesson for today is that we should look at the finished piece, its design and if it is well made, not just if it was made in a specific way. You don't have to be a traditional crafts-person to be a master crafts-person although not understanding the past can be very limiting in your options for the future (but that's a separate issue).
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