Duncan Phyfe: A New York Story

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011|

ANTIQUES It has been almost ninety years since the last major Duncan Phyfe exhibition was held at the Met. This exhibition again brings the household name of Phyfe before a wide public. Can it go some distance towards satisfying our curiosity about how an immigrant New York cabinetmaker who did not advertise, who left relatively few documented pieces of furniture, and whose written records are sparse to say the least became the "United States Rage" during his lifetime and the holy grail of American furniture in the century and a half or so since his death? Was this the first great example of the regrettable term now known as branding?

 KENNY The branding, I think, is really a product of Phyfe's afterglow. He certainly made an effort to separate himself from others in his day in terms of the quality of his products, but the modern sense of branding came in after his work became widely known through the 1922 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum and when Sears, Roebuck and Company began to manufacture a "Phyfe" dining table, or Kensing­ton and Company made klismos chairs, or the Sonora Phonograph Company advertised an exquisite cabinet in the "Duncan Phyfe style."

ANTIQUES  But you have to have the prestige first before Sears, Roebuck et al. decide to capitalize on it, so somehow Phyfe acquired it.

BROWN Oh absolutely. In fact even as early as 1814 auctioneers in New York liquidat­ing the contents of a home noted that there was furniture "by Phyfe." So it's really quite remarkable-within twenty years of starting out he did become something of a "brand" name. He is one of the few furniture crafts­men whose name turns up in the newspapers, even though he himself is known to have advertised only once. People recognized the name and it added cachet, whether the furniture being sold was by him or not.

ANTIQUES Does the prominence of Phyfe's clients have anything to do with the spread of his reputation-and how did he get to prestigious clients like William Bayard by 1807 from his start in 1792?

KENNY Phyfe's earliest biographer, Ernest F. Hagen, recorded a fancy tradition in the Phyfe family that he was supported by one of John Jacob Astor's daughters at the beginning of his career and that the Astors were his best customers. We've never been able to pin that down. In her book on Phyfe, Nancy McClelland illustrated some Phyfe furniture owned by Astor family descendants in Canada, but when you look at it, the earliest piece appears to have been made about 1820. Michael, are there bills for any early wealthy clients before William Bayard, or is he our first prominent wealthy client?

BROWN I'd say Bayard was the first, but probably when Phyfe came on the scene he de­veloped a reputation based on word of mouth. It's also important to remember that people didn't go to just one craftsman. In fact the furni­ture ordered from Phyfe for Millford Plantation [in South Carolina] is one of the few instances when a large order was placed for a whole house, rather than for just one or two rooms.

KENNY Bayard, however, bought a lot of chairs and a lot of sofas, which leaves us scratching our heads a little. Maybe he entertained greatly. He certainly would have been in the forefront of taste and style-the "Regency gentleman" in New York City-and he updated his house on State Street when he moved there in 1806 or 1807, so the timing was perfect for him to get a great set of "Regency" chairs in the up-to-date Grecian style. But why three sets? One perhaps was for his daughter, who married in 1807. Incidentally, careful examination reveals that the chairs were not all carved by the same hand.

It is interesting, too, that right there on State Street you have Bayard in 1806 or 1807 with his furniture in Phyfe's early Grecian style; then in the 1820s Robert Donaldson moved in, closer to Bowling Green, with his furniture in Phyfe's mature ornamented Grecian style; and finally, we've made a link, not through bills of sale but through attribution, to at least one example in Phyfe's most heavily ornamented style owned by Stephen C. Whitney, who built a house on the corner of Bowling Green and State Street in 1827. So you had a little enclave of Grecian style Phyfe furniture right there on one street.

BROWN I want to point out, too, that an­other great compliment to Phyfe came from his own contemporaries and competitors, like John Hewitt, who very consciously noted in his ac­count book in 1811 that he had made a sideboard "like Phyfe's." I think Phyfe clearly had estab­lished a quality of design and craftsmanship that was recognized throughout layers of society.

KENNY Hewitt's exact quote: "a French sideboard like Phyfe's with as many drawers as possible." Who could ask for a nicer compliment than from your competitor? Actually, Hewitt mentions Charles-Honoré Lannuier's work as well, which is interesting.

ANTIQUES Can you back up and talk a little about how Phyfe created his own myth and the way that may have played into his success?

BROWN Yes, it really is very interest­ing. The death notice in the New York Times indicates that the year of his birth was 1768, and that's what the family has always said. But in trying to track Phyfe down in Scotland, we feel quite certain that we identified him in birth records, and the date registered is two years later-it's 1770. As we worked on Phyfe and got to know him, it began to seem that his moves in his personal and business lives were very carefully calculated-so one way to explain the birth year discrepancy is to see that it gave him a little head start to say he was two years older than he was. For instance, by 1792 when he was first listed in New York City records, his mother had been widowed, so if he were no longer an apprentice, he could earn some income for the family. That ties in with other aspects that show us a very ambitious man, one who became very wealthy, unlike so many other craftsmen-Thomas Seymour in Boston, and even Lannuier in New York who died young and left a relatively meager estate. And, by the way, what did Phyfe do with the money he made? He plowed it into real estate, a very NewYork thing to do!

KENNY Other evidence of his ambition can be seen in his going from being a "joiner" to calling himself a "cabinetmaker." This is intriguing because "joiner" is an old-fashioned term, while "cabinetmaker" suggests someone who's on the rise, who has a stock of furniture on hand for customers in his shop. Then Phyfe changed the spelling of his name from the simple "Fife" to "Phyfe"- just at the time when Grecian style was becoming important, and that "ph" connotes Greek derivation. Interest­ingly, another Scots cabinetmaker in New York, William Buttre, changed his name from Butter when he came from Scotland. Obviously, either you were going to be French or you were going to be Greek, but plain old Scottish wouldn't do. Then, of course, Lannuier arrived and he had it made with a French name and a foreign accent!

Actually, Michael and I have been talking a lot about Phyfe's Scottish background-and one of the interesting things he and Matt Thurlow discovered was that Phyfe never joined the Saint Andrew's Society (though his brother and some of his nephews did). People like to talk about his Scots background, but he seemed eager from the start to be known as an American. By 1803 he had become a citizen.

BROWN Most of the furniture makers who came to New York from Scotland came from in and around Edinburgh, but Phyfe came from the Highlands. If there was an established tradition of furniture making there, it is not presently known, nor have we found any evidence to indicate that he had any exposure to furniture-making in Scotland.

ANTIQUES So he's an American, even by training-and a New Yorker.

BROWN All we really know is that his mother settled in Albany and her estate is re­corded there. He may have spent some time in Albany as a boy, but I think Peter would concur that there really wasn't a significant community of cabinetmakers in Albany at the time. Really, all Phyfe had to do was look down the Hudson River to realize that New York City was where he needed to be if he wanted to be successful.

ANTIQUES So your assumption is that he was trained in New York?

KENNY Yes, but we don't know with whom. Though we've found intriguing connec­tions, like his marriage to Rachel Louzada, one of whose relatives Isaac, was a cabinetmaker-and there's Seabury Champlin and Isaac Nichols, who sponsored his membership in the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York in 1792. They were both cabinetmakers.

KENNY A hundred years of looking for this man by generations of historians, and so little-we are just hoping nobody miraculously comes up with something key right after we've published the book!

BROWN It's true. You would really think by the nineteenth century there'd be more of a paper trail than there is.

KENNY Also, we were saying the other day, if I'd been a worker for Phyfe, I would have been jumping up and down once he got famous to say, "I worked in that shop!" Where are those guys? It's really strange that there are still so many question marks.

ANTIQUES Is the Phyfe story a New York story? Can we say that Phyfe was responsible for shifting the center of prestigious furniture making from Philadel­phia to New York or was it New York that made it possible for him to do this?

KENNY The Phyfe story and the New York story parallel each other. New York became im­portant because of economic changes going on there-Southerners were going to NewYork be­cause the city was bankrolling the cotton trade. Then after the War of 1812 the city became the entrepôt for luxury and manufactured goods from England, and Phyfe was the man of the moment. Take the example of his patron Robert Donaldson, who moved to New York from Fay­etteville, NorthCarolina. He had lots of money, but he didn't come to be a banker, he came be­cause NewYork was becoming a cultural center.

BROWN The Erie Canal was important too.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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