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Timeless Beauty: Two Ambitious NYC Exhibits on The Work and Influence of Duncan Phyfe

Written by Rebecca Christian

I grew up hearing the name "Duncan Phyfe" spoken in a tone of hushed reverence by my grandmother. Almost always clad in a little black dress and pearls and a veiled hat, she loved beautiful things and was crazy about his furniture with its harp and lyre backs and dragon claw feet. The Phyfe mystique endures, as evidenced by two complementary new exhibits about him and his work about to open in NYC this month. One is the Metropolitan Museum of Art's sweeping retrospective, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, December 20, 2011-May 6, 2012, which will include furniture produced in Scottish immigrant Phyfe's Fulton Street studio, which once stood on the site of the World Trade Center (

The second exhibit, The World of Duncan Phyfe-The Arts of New York, 1800-1847  is a multimedia exhibit that opens Thursday, December 15, at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries and runs through February 17. Curated by gallery owners Stuart and Elizabeth Feld, it's comprised of work made by Phyfe and his contemporaries in New York City, and shown alongside the work of other artisans of the time in wood, silver, porcelain, and metal. The show offers an unusual opportunity to buy museum quality work. Hirschl and Adler Galleries co-owner Elizabeth Feld says of the two exhibits, "For someone who loves design, it's a field day," says. Here's an example of an early piece on display at the galleries:

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York
The Ogden Family Work Table, about 1810-15
Satinwood and burl satinwood, partially ebonized, and mahogany, with gilt-brass paw toe caps
and castors and drawer pulls, baize writing surface, and mirror plate
31 in. high, 21 ≤ in. wide, 14 π in. deep
Photo by the Helga Photo Studio

Says Feld, "Basically the word 'Phyfe' has become a very generic way of saying neoclassical, like Kleenex is a way to describe tissue. His name became the moniker for the aesthetic. Neoclassical keeps reinventing itself. He helped create an indigenous New York form of classicism, and because he was so successful, his name became attached to the style. Our show uses the nearly five-decade span when Phyfe was working in New York (he had emigrated from Scotland before 1800) to take a look at what was happening in the way of design and aesthetics in New York during that period. Phyfe was a tastemaker, and really helped to define the New York 'brand' of neoclassicism which developed around him. Our show includes furniture (by Phyfe and some of his direct competitors), porcelain, glass, silver, and lighting all made in New York or abroad for an American clientele. This is an area that our gallery specializes in and has done several other major exhibitions and books on over the years. This was a natural way to expand our outreach on this subject matter to those interested in the era. We are also including fine arts (paintings, prints, works on paper, sculpture) to help paint a portrait of this moment (albeit a long and changing one)."

Here's a example of a Phyfe table from his middle years:

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York
Pier Table, about 1817-22
Rosewood, with poplar feet, gilded and painted verde antique, and an unidentified wood,
with die-stamped brass inlay inset with rosewood, ormolu mounts, white marble, black-
and-gold marble, and mirror plate
36 9/16 in. high, 42 in. wide, 20 π in. deep
Photo by Joshua Nefsky

Phyfe worked for 50 years, and during that time his style evolved, Feld says, from a light early style to a middle period of more florid neoclassicism (the phantasmagorical period my grandmother loved), infusing pieces with gryphons and lions, and ending with a period where he made form-based pieces that were very sculptural -- their only added decor was the application of incredible tropical woods as veneers. The two pieces above are from the early and middle years, and the piece below from the late years, show that progression:

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe and Sons, New York
Center Table in the Restauration Taste, about 1837-40
Mahogany, with brass hardware and castors, 28 1/8 in. high, 36 in. diameter
Private collection
Photo by Joshua Nefsky

The exhibit at the Hirschl and Aldler Galleries is free and open to the public from Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, and on Saturdays from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, and by appointment on Mondays at The Crown Building, 730 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor (57th Street), New York, NY 10019, 212-535-8810.



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