Saturday, March 3, 2012


One of our goals each time we get to New York is to take advantage of at least one cultural opportunity afforded by a city with culture to spare. We have established rules. We can not use a trip to the Club Monaco store to check out their newest men's collection as a way of having satisfied this obligation even though we've tried many times to justify this type of "cultural" enlightenment. Our past trip to the city was shorter than usual this time but we did manage to see Albert Nobbs and we did make it to the Met to see the Duncan Phyfe exhibit. The movie is a stretch in terms of having fulfilled our obligation but the Duncan Phyfe exhibit definitely gave us high cultural points.
I'm not fond of much of this late eighteenth/early nineteenth century movement in furniture design but when we walked into the American Wing and into the Phyfe exhibit I realized if I looked at the details of the work I could find reason to appreciate, no admire, the work of Duncan Phyfe.
Duncan Fife arrived in America in the early 1780's having crossed the Atlantic from Scotland as a rather poor immigrant. His family settled in Albany where Duncan learned his craft. By 1791 he had moved to New York City, set up his own shop and changed his name from Fife to Phyfe. Branding was as important in the early 19th century as it is now. Trading an "F" for a more sophisticated "Ph" attracted a deeper pocketed clientele. It was his way of putting the polo player on his dining room chairs. For almost 50 years the Duncan Phyfe factory produced furnishings for Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and wealthy Southern customers. The exhibit at the Met covers three distinct periods of furniture design as imagined by the craftsmen at Phyfe.
The first phase of Duncan Phyfe's body of work is a blending of the English Neoclassical and Regency styles. This was the over-the-top style that helped establish him as the "pinnacle of taste and sophistication" in interior furnishings in a relatively new America. Defined by references to the antiquities, and lots of gold-leafing these pieces were by far my least favorite. But if you took the time to look at some of the detailing you could find very refined reeding running along the sides of his chairs and really amazing proportion in the way he turned a leg with its elongated foot and fluted ribbing.
As if the ornamentation of the Neoclassical and Regency styles was not enough the second phase of Duncan Phyfe's work brought in the Rococo and Greek Revival movements popular on the continent. His craftsmanship was superb but all the marble inlay and lion headed feet were too much for me.
There were an abundance of "Pier" tables on display as examples of this phase in the Phyfe timeline. Looking like an entry console to me the derivation of the name "Pier" came from the mirror placed at the bottom back of the table. This I learned from Rick whose knowledge of historic furniture design is encyclopedic. Apparently due to the floor length dresses that were the fashion of the time the mirror served as a way for ladies to check their hems. No woman of the time would want an uneven hem, or a bit of slip showing or, God forbid, an exposed ankle. It may have been modesty or the need to protect their vanity that told someone it might be more delicate to at the least change the spelling from "peer" to "pier" From there on out any reflective surface acquired the moniker of "pier". Maybe in today's culture JLo should have used a "Pier Mirror" before she decided to walk out Oscar night exposing one areola for all the children to see.
It was so nice to see Duncan mellow in his last phase of production. His Gothic Revival mixed with American Empire style saw a toning down of ornamentation into some of the most beautiful pieces of furniture I've seen. Here, material and proportion won out over gilding and mythic animal heads.
The crowning piece at the end of the last gallery was this beautiful cabinet. I got caught taking a picture of this elegant piece with my flash and had to leave the gallery in shame and embarrassment. There were plenty of tourists feigning foreign accents leisurely walking through the exhibit with their cell phones nonchalantly held at their waists discretely video taping the entire exhibit.
I guess if I want to see the detailing I so admired I'm going to have to buy the catalogue of the exhibit, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York. It's on sale through amazon,
Thank you Duncan for fulfilling our monthly cultural obligation.

This weeks word: Klismos
Klismos refers to a type of chair attributed to the Greeks. The chair is defined by a soft curving back that s-curves through the seat and then down to the curve of its legs. The French resurrected the form with their Directoire style followed by the English and their English Regency and finally incorporated by us with our American Empire versions.

The New York Design Center recently instigated a new program called, "Access to Design". It's a service they are making available to the general public to help take away some of the mystery of the "to-the-trade" building, how it works and how a designer can help guide you through the process of utilizing the building. A stable of around thirty designers were selected to participate as design advocates. Laura Kirar, Chris Coleman, and Laura Bohn are among the selected designers. As an advocate, the designer is responsible for manning the Access room at least once a month to meet clients wanting design help and/or access to the building and the showrooms.
We feel very fortunate to have been selected as one of the design teams for "Access to Design". Please check out our page on the Access website:

Pont des Arts, Paris, 1987
Michael Kenna, Photographer
Represented by Robert Mann Gallery

No comments:

Post a Comment