A 19th-century American cabinetmaker, Duncan Phyfe came to the United States in 1784 from Scotland, but it took him until 1800 to establish himself as a cabinet- and furniture-maker. Based in New York, Phyfe created his own style of furniture by blending characteristics from Regency and English Neoclassical styles along with Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Adam and Empire.
Knowing some of the distinctive characteristics of his furniture can help you identify some of his works or reproductions of his work, as Phyfe rarely added labels or maker's marks to his furniture. Near the end of his career -- which lasted until just before his death in 1854 -- Phyfe introduced elements from the Gothic and Greek Revival styles as well as characteristics common to the Rococo style to his furniture.
Unless you have documents or historical records that can link the furniture to Duncan Phyfe, you will need to identify his furniture by its characteristics. Phyfe made everything for the home: card tables, sofas, armchairs, footstools, secretaries, dining tables and chairs. To identify his chairs, look for harps, lyres or lutes on delicately framed chair backs. His dining tables often included two or more pedestal supports with graceful arches on either side, ending in metal capped feet.
Wood and Carvings
Phyfe worked almost exclusively with mahogany but sometimes included poplar, cherry and ash -- and gilded brass. He also worked with walnut, fruitwood, rosewood veneers and maple. He took great care to age the woods to prevent cracking. Phyfe often added carved details to his furniture in the shape of drapery swags, acanthus leaves, carved fluting and feather-like plumes.
Aspects of Phyfe's construction techniques and workmanship help museum appraisers identify his pieces. He chose to work with only high-quality woods, carving finely detailed feet onto the legs of tables, chairs and sofas. In his hand-wrought joinery, you won't find nails or screws in any of his pieces.
Chair Back Styles
Phyfe's chair backs often included designs of the musical instruments previously mentioned, but he also developed others styles as well. The back of the chair -- the splat -- could have an X-shaped crossbar, a flat vertical slat for the crosspiece, or a curved X-shaped scroll back.
Look for decorative carving on legs that end in three toes, curule or X-shaped legs, splayed legs with a concave shape, round reeded legs with decorative vertical carving, and turned slender legs that taper near the foot.
Phyfe often added brass knobs in mushroom shapes, crystal glass knobs -- iridescent or clear -- lion's heads with a pull ring in the mouth made from brass, and oval back plates with handles as drawer pulls.
Since some of his furniture is over two centuries old, you won't just happen on a piece of Duncan Phyfe furniture without a hefty price tag attached to it. The wood on his furniture has an aged appearance that often includes a soft patina. Many of Phyfe's pieces also included wood inlays and high-quality wood veneers.