Duncan Phyfe

Fine examples of master cabinetmaker are on exhibit now

The master cabinetmaker “had an uncanny knack 

for grasping current trends and translating them into 

stylistically coherent
 lines of furniture”

The works of Duncan Phyfe—one of America’s most renowned furniture makers—are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it’s an extraordinary exhibit that lovers of fine design and craftsmanship won’t want to miss.

“Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York” marks the first time since 1909 that works spanning his 50-year career are on view. The many facets of Phyfe’s design aesthetic—from the neoclassical motifs of the 1790s to the Grecian Plain style, to the later Gothic and Rococo revivals of the 1840s—are chronicled by curators Peter M. Kenney of the Metropolitan Museum and Michael K. Brown of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Seeing this furniture up close, one is awestruck by the depth of color and exuberant figuring of the rare mahogany veneers that Phyfe painstakingly selected. This retrospective captures the essence of the furniture—and the man—whose history is as fascinating as his body of work.

The young apprentice cabinetmaker immigrated to New York City from Scotland in the early 1780s; he was poor but smart and gifted. Phyfe made the transition from student to master craftsman at a time when the city was establishing itself as the country’s leading economic center. He learned early on that marketing and branding—as much as expertise—would set him apart. With foresight and determination, Phyfe set up shop in lower Manhattan near the Hudson River, to facilitate transport of the lumber he needed; one of his favored woods was mahogany from the Caribbean. At 24, he changed the spelling of his name from “Fife” to “Phyfe,” further distancing himself from his humble past.

Phyfe was “a demanding craftsman, and an aesthetically intelligent interpreter of British and French neoclassical design. He had an uncanny knack for grasping current trends and translating them into stylistically coherent lines of furniture,” according to the museum catalog.

The cabinetmaker’s early works are very hard to find. Treasured, they tend to stay in families. When available, they can fetch prices up to $200,000. His later pieces, many of them heavy and in the Empire style (and harder to place), typically cost considerably less.

We found two splendid trestle tables offered by Jesse Goldberg at Artemis Antiques in North Salem, NY (22 Wallace Rd., 914-669-5971, artemisantiques.com). And there’s a fine settee attributed to Phyfe in Antiquario Villas and Cottages (antiquariovc.com), the shop of Steve Jablonski and Wilson Forero (1023 Main Street South, Woodbury, 203-263-2211), that is remarkably similar to the example at the Metropolitan Museum. “I’ve always favored Phyfe’s work of the Federal period from 1789 to 1825,” says Jablonski, “and I’m confident that Phyfe himself made this settee. We had it stripped to the horsehair and have done nothing to the piece structurally; some dowels have been replaced over time, which is common for pieces in constant use since the 18th century.”

The Met catalog says this about its nearly identical example: “Long considered a classic of its type, this graceful scroll-back sofa has been described as “the perfect collector’s piece,” and “simply put, is the best of its kind.”

“Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York” runs through May 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org).