We worked on two Duncan Phyfe (1768 – 1854) tables within the last six months. One was a breakfast table with a drop leaf where the French polish on the tabletop hard worn out; the table had also suffered from direct contact with hot cookware, leaving outlines and ruining the shellac. The second was a sewing table with veneer panels, missing most of its French polish.
Duncan Phyfe, originally spelt Fife, was born in Scotland in 1768. His family immigrated to the United States in 1784, where they settled in Albany, New York. Duncan worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker until he opened his own shop. For greater fortunes, he moved to New York City in 1792 where his cabinetmaking firm, at its height, would employ over one hundred carvers and cabinetmakers.
Regarded as the greatest of all American cabinetmakers, Duncan Phyfe was seen as a major spokesperson for Neoclassicism, merging modern European tastes with the olden styles of Antiquity. However, when popular tastes changed, so did his style. By 1925 he had developed an Empire Style, supplanting his chairs, tables and sofas with delicate, reeded legs, often times ending with massive claw feet.
In 1837 his two sons, Michael and James, became partners and the firm changed its name to Duncan Phyfe and Sons. Unfortunately, Michael died in 1940, and the name was changed to Duncan Phyfe and Son.
Though widely imitated, Phyfe’s work can be found in iconic and historic places like the White House Green Room, Edgewater, Roper House, and the Millford Plantation. In 1922, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held the “Furniture from the Workshop of Duncan Phyfe,” the first exhibition held to show the work of a single cabinetmaker. He died in 1854, and is buried at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.