Duncan Phyfe: Furniture & Style

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen chairs with clawed feet or finely grooved legs? What kind of furniture was fashionable in early 19th century America? In this lesson, learn about Duncan Phyfe and his style of furniture.

Who was Duncan Phyfe?

Duncan Phyfe (1768 - 1854) was a Scotch immigrant who came to the United States with his family in 1784. He apprenticed first in a cabinetmaker's shop in Albany before moving to New York City. By the early 1800s, Phyfe had establishing a furniture-making shop that catered to wealthy customers along the Eastern Seaboard. Today, the name Duncan Phyfe is almost synonymous with high craftsmanship and refined style.

So why is Phyfe's furniture so celebrated? He didn't invent a new furniture style, but he displayed great skill in blending elements of popular and fashionable European styles into finely made furniture for America. Phyfe successfully used a factory approach to making furniture, so his works weren't specifically carved or made by him alone. His workshop at its height hired over one hundred skilled craftsmen who made a wide range of furniture. The Duncan Phyfe inventory included arm chairs and side chairs, dining room sets, side tables and card tables, sofas, and large cabinets and secretaries.

Duncan Phyfe armchair, ca. 1815, mahogany and gilt brass with caned seat. Notice the clawed front feet.
Duncan Phyfe armchair

Phyfe had a careful eye toward style refinement. He was also dedicated to high-quality materials. To ensure the best finished product, he established quality craftsmanship in all steps of the furniture-making process in his factory. For example, Phyfe carefully aged his woods before using them so they would be less prone to cracking. It was his excellence in making the furniture as well as a specific style that made him popular.

But one thing Phyfe didn't do is label his furniture. So, to identify authentic pieces you need to know what to look for.

The Duncan Phyfe Style

In a general sense, Duncan Phyfe furniture is known for its balance, harmony and proportion. All elements of a piece work together to create a pleasing, refined whole. Individual furniture objects don't look clunky or awkward or have elements that seem out of place. Phyfe was a successful businessman who adopted elements of new styles as they became fashionable, so there isn't one cohesive style that always shows in a Phyfe piece. Rather, there are certain elements that reflect his quality of manufacture and refined eye.


Pieces tend to be made from high grade hardwoods like mahogany or rosewood. Details might be done in precious materials like ivory or gilt brass, which means brass coated in a very thin layer of gold. Surfaces might be decorated with veneers of different colored and patterned hardwoods. Veneers are paper-thin layers of wood used to create decorative effects. Some pieces were upholstered in durable material like damask, which had decorative patterns woven into its surface.

Duncan Phyfe secretary, ca. 1840, made of mahogany and mahogany veneers, with marble, ivory and gilt brass. Notice the balance and symmetry.
Duncan Phyfe secretary cabinet

Designs and patterns

Designs often feature shapes and symbols that recall elements of Neoclassical style, which means they echo symbols from ancient Greece. These include things like lyres, harps, scrolls, and acanthus leaves, a unfurling leaf motif based on a plant from the Mediterranean. Phyfe also added newer style elements like lion heads, ribbons, and claw feet. Designs and symbols might be carved in low relief and some elements might have grooved surfaces that resemble a fluted column. Furniture elements like legs and backs often had graceful, curving lines.

Duncan Phyfe sofa, ca. 1820, made of mahogany and tulip poplar with gilt brass. Notice the grooved surfaces on the legs and baseboard
Duncan Phyfe sofa

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