Based in New York, Scottish-born cabinet and furniture maker Duncan Phyfe created new interpretations of European-styled furniture and made them his own. He gained renown as an American furniture maker in the beginning of the 19th century; if you're lucky enough to find an original, expect to pay handsomely for it.
Phyfe made all kinds of furniture from 1800 through the 1840s. Some of his more favored pieces include idiosyncratic tables that carry signature characteristics -- Phyfe was not known for adding his maker's mark to his furnishings, instead letting his distinctive style stand testament to its maker. Because of this, be wary of reproductions or furniture of similar design and age being passed off as Phyfe originals.
Unless you can find a table that Phyfe signed his name to, your best chance of identifying an original includes some kind of documentation: a 175- to 215-year-old bill of lading, invoice or documents that indicate the piece was commissioned to Phyfe by the original owners or family members. Another way to ensure you have an original Phyfe is buying it from relatives of the original owners, who can verify its authenticity.
Even antique dealers and professionals often refuse to indicate whether a card table or dining table is an original Phyfe piece. This is because of the high-quality craftsmanship of more than 300 cabinet makers who made furniture in these styles in the region from 1810 to 1820.
Interpretations of Styles
Phyfe employed elements from English Regency and Neoclassical in his furniture designs. You can also find influences from Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Gothic and Rococo in the tables he made.
Phyfe favored high-quality woods for the tables and other furniture he made. To identify original Duncan Phyfe pieces, compare some of the carvings found on table knees or legs to those of known Phyfe creation pictured online, in books or in museums. Phyfe used mahogany, black walnut, pear and apple woods, cherry, rosewood veneers and maple, among other hardwoods both domestic and exotic in his creations. Some of his more formal dining tables used a combination of woods, with the main body of the table being mahogany bordered by a satinwood inlay.
Chair backs often included a specialty hallmark of Phyfe's: five thunderbolts tied with a bow knot at their center. Other New York cabinetmakers used this symbol as well, but Phyfe added this feature to many of the scroll-backed chairs that accompanied his dining or card tables.
Signature Design Elements
Incorporated into the support for a single pedestal table with four legs ending in paw-type brass-capped feet, you might find a hand-carved lyre or harp connected to an elaborately carved fasces -- a shaft that appears as a bundle of reeds or rods. Many furniture makers from the same period copied the use of the handcrafted
Phyfe mostly designed tables that stood on single or double pedestals of three to four carved legs ending in animal-type feet with three to four toes. Table legs might be lightly curved out or splayed, with reed carvings that run up the leg, acanthus leaves or other carved elements.
Tabletops generally contain solid wood aged to a soft patina, sometimes with borders that extend down from the perimeter of the tabletop in wide bands of highly grained woods. Look for hand-wrought joinery and leaf locks for tables with multiple leaves.
Duncan Phyfe-style furniture and original Duncan Phyfe pieces can look very similar, however, the quality and price point for both is pretty different. Phyfe's original work is known for it's classic look and straight lines. Most of the furniture was carved out of rich hard woods like walnut or mahogany.
There was a revival of his style of work in the earlier decades of the 1900s that used similar styles, but not the same materials. Original pieces are over 150 years old and can sell for more than $100,000. Don't be fooled by cheaper imitations that look like Phyfe's work but are not in fact an original.
As a native Californian, artist, journalist and published author, Laurie Brenner began writing professionally in 1975. She has written for newspapers, magazines, online publications and sites. Brenner graduated from San Diego's Coleman College.