Articles At A Glance
By Debra Tobin
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, September 2009
While there are many manufacturers of quality furniture, Duncan Phyfe is by far one of the most respected names in the history of furniture making. In fact, Phyfe has become the expression used to identify the American-made furniture in antique or neoclassical style that was influenced by the forms and ornaments used in classical Greece and Rome.
The furniture is synonymous with the name of the man who’s responsible for the design and manufacturing of the highly-crafted pieces of exquisite furniture, Duncan Phyfe. A Scottish-born immigrant, Phyfe came to New York with his family and after completing his apprenticeship he established a cabinet shop that at one time employed over a hundred workers. His work reflected the designs of Empire, Sheraton and French Directoire and soon became a fixture among American homes as well as the topic of discussion.
According to records, Phyfe could perhaps be the only cabinetmaker in America whose name is connected with a long list of styles of furniture: double pedestal banquet tables, reeded leg sofas, window benches, central pedestal drop leaf breakfast tables, Martha Washington sewing stands, etc. Alluring carving, turning and form motifs linked to his shop include reeding, thunderbolts, trumpets, rosettes, acanthus leave, water leaf, palm leaf, lion’s foot, drapery swags, wheat ears, urn turned posts, and his most eloquent aspect of work, the lyre design.
A lyre is a stringed instrument of the harp family having a U-shaped frame and was used by ancient Greeks for song and recitation. The design of the lyre became well known in Greek decoration and later was adapted in the Empire period and became a favorite design for many of Phyfe’s furniture pieces. For example, a lyre arm is a design in furniture where the shape resembles that of the lyre instrument. The design is often affiliated with a scrolling effect of the arms of a chair or sofa or chair backs.
Phyfe’s furniture was made from rich, red mahogany wood that came from Cuba and Santo Domingo, combined with veneer panels for a more dramatic effect. He was very meticulous when it came to purchasing the wood for his furniture and often paid up to $1,000 for a log; even supervising the cutting process in some cases. However, after 1830 most of Duncan Phyfe furniture was made from rosewood, walnut, maple or satinwood.
The ornamental designs of Phyfe’s furniture appealed to a wealthier clientele that admired not only his designs but also his noble craftsmanship. His work and designs included the drapery swag, oak leaves, reeding, claws and paws, and wheat just to name a few. These designs and Phyfe’s finely-tuned craftsmanship made an incredible impression on furniture styles of the 1800s. Due to the extravagant details of his craftsmanship, Phyfe’s furniture was somewhat expensive even for those days. In 1816 a “Piere” table sold for approximately $265 and a sofa was priced at $122. Today, these pieces would sell for thousands or in some cases, could be priceless.
The style is still very popular in furniture manufacturing today. When purchasing a piece of Duncan Phyfe furniture, customers often ask if the particular piece was made in the Duncan Phyfe workshop or if it is just in the style of Phyfe. His furniture was rarely marked or labeled so it was difficult to distinguish whether the piece was actually from his workshop or if it was another company reproducing his finely-crafted furniture. Some say there are as few as 20 pieces of Phyfe’s furniture that may have been marked or labeled. These pieces include a labeled card table priced at $11,000; a three post tilt top tea table for $24,200; a cellaret (a sideboard for holding bottles of wine or liquor) for $13,200; and a satinwood sewing table that sold for $93,500.
According to Robert Adkins of Georgia, unless you inherit a piece of Duncan Phyfe furniture, very rarely will you find an original piece, and “if you do it would be very old, dating from the 1800s and will usually show some kind of wear.” Adkins has been in the antique business for at least 12 years and for several years now has been showcasing investment-quality furniture at Scott Antique Market in Georgia. He said the market brings in a variety of dealers as well as draws a good crowd of buyers who aren’t afraid to spend money.
Adkins has a broad assortment of furniture and often purchases it from England or other dealers to resell. If you are searching for furniture in the style of Duncan Phyfe, Adkins usually has four to ten pieces at the market each month. Prices will vary with each piece; from $100 upwards to thousands of dollars. “A lot of the pricing also depends on the dealer and the clientele you have,” he added.
Claiming furniture bought from England is much better in style and quality than that of American-made Adkins stated, “It’s very well made and the styles are wonderful. Most of the pieces bought from England are solid wood and the craftsmanship is better than that of any new piece of furniture.” He added, “Some people purchase Duncan Phyfe furniture or furniture in the ‘style’ of Duncan Phyfe because it sort of reminds them of growing up in the 40s, but they also like the style and quality of the furniture.”
Adkins continued, “There also seems to be an abundance of Duncan Phyfe furniture in New York. It could be because this is where the company first originated and these fine pieces have been passed down generation after generation.” Adkins stressed the fact that “it’s a style of furniture” that carries the Duncan Phyfe name. While Adkins said he would like to add a bow front six-legged sideboard to his collection, many of his clients seek out the table and chair sets with the fluted leg or claw-foot pedestal. “Many of the Duncan Phyfe tables or in the ‘style’ of Duncan Phyfe are noted for the fluted legs or claw-foot pedestals. It just depends on what the client is looking for,” he said. “It’s all a balancing act for me,” Adkins stated. “You buy it at the right price so you can in return sell it at the right price and everyone is satisfied.”
Peter Disalvo, owner of English Classics, and manager Peter Hemerlein became familiar with and started in the antique business approximately 10 years ago. A mutual friend of theirs living in England had another friend wishing to sell antique furniture in the United States so Disalvo and Hemerlein decided to help them out. Today they exhibit over 14 booths full of furniture at Scott Antique Market, in addition to running their own antique furniture business.
“Duncan Phyfe furniture is pretty simplistic and that’s what people like about this style,” Hemerlein said. “I believe Duncan Phyfe when making or designing the furniture gave it a classical style by combining different things from the 1800s styles that were going on at that time.” Hemerlein said people also like Duncan Phyfe furniture because of the look or style and how it incorporates with different decorating schemes.
One of the most expensive pieces of furniture in the “style” of Duncan Phyfe sold by Hemerlein at Scott Antique Market was a double pedestal dining table. The table sold for $3,500. “Some of the most sought after pieces are dining tables and chairs,” Hemerlein stated. “The chairs are hard to come by though because they wear out first so they are the first to go in the home.”
Phyfe made a variety of different styled tables including long, double or more pedestal-based banquet tables, dining tables, as well as many other styles. The tables were usually very heavy but refined and attractive. Earlier pieces were less ornately designed while later pieces were more detailed with intricate carvings. The feet of the tables were most likely carved claws or paws with brass decoration of some sort and the legs were curved into a vase shape beautifully carved with foliage. The larger tables usually had two or more pedestals with three legs and feet.
Disalvo and Hemerlein have been selling their wares at Scott Antique Market since they first established English Classics 10 years ago and said they have a lot of repeat buyers in their store from the market. “I really like meeting the people from the area as well as the surrounding states that come to buy,” Hemerlein said
Duncan Phyfe furniture has been a “brand” name tossed around by many decorators and designers all over the world. And even though there may be very few pieces of “original” Duncan Phyfe furniture in existence or for sale in the antique world, there are a lot of finely-crafted pieces of furniture in the “style” of Duncan Phyfe. This young Scottish entrepreneur’s name is what distinguishes his furniture from all others.
For more information on Scott Antique Markets in Ohio and Georgia, please visit www.scottantiquemarket.com or call 740-569-4112.
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