Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York Exhibit

Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York Exhibit

Natalie Espinosa
Jan 25, 2012

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This fascinating exhibition is the first retrospective of the famous cabinetmaker in 90 years!

The exhibition, arranged chronologically, includes examples from the different styles he produced over his lifetime including his best-known period from 1805-1820 which was deeply influenced by English Regency; the more opulent, monumental Grecian style inspired by archaeological finds of the time, produced during the 1810s and 1820s (sometimes also referred to as American Empire); and his latest style characterized by sleeker lines and less ornamentation called the Grecian Plain style.

Since his work was widely imitated, and Phyfe rarely marked his pieces, in the past it has been very hard to accurately determine which pieces were made by him and which were made by other workshops. By matching bills of sale and other documents to specific pieces, this exhibition presents for a clearer look at the range of objects and styles he produced.

The exhibition contains over 100 pieces from public and private collections, including furniture that has been passed down in the Phyfe family. The exhibition design varies, and includes domestic interiors to give an idea of the context in which these pieces were used, and displays arranged by type, showing the range of styles in which a similar piece, was produced. The exhibition also includes a display of tables, one created by Phyfe and similar tables created by competing workshops of the time, highlighting the differences and similarities between them and demonstrating how hard it can be to make a definitive attribution to a specific workshop.

And if you are interested in knowing how the furniture was made, the exhibition includes the cabinetmaker's own chest of tools, a disassembled table that allows you to see structure of the table to understand how it is made, and videos demonstrating carving and turning techniques.

The Metropolitan Museum has also planned a series of lectures related to the exhibition:

Classic Design: Duncan Phyfe and Historical Reproduction
January 22, 2012 | Free with Museum admission
Selling the Design: Business Models of American Craftsmen
January 22, 2012 | Free with Museum admission
Live Carving and Sketching Demonstrations
January 22, 2012 | Free with Museum admission

(Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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