Phancy Phurniture Phrom Phyfe

Willie: I’m from Scotland too! Where do ya hail from?
Homer: Uh…North Kilttown.

– The Simpsons

Our original dining room furniture was a work table and a few folding chairs. My folks gave us some money for real dining furniture, and we started perusing the want ads (this being in the long-long-ago before Craigslist).

We found an antique mahogany table and sideboard with six chairs. “It’s too grandma-y,” I grumpily opined. But the Kev said that it was high-quality furniture at an excellent price. And that he liked it. Since most of the house decisions to that point had gone my way, I yielded.

I soon found out why “grandmother” sprang to mind. On seeing it, my mother said, “Ooh, that’s Duncan Phyfe–your great-grandmother had a very similar set!”

willie

Duncan Phyfe: Better-looking, more successful, but also a Scot.

So who is this Duncan Phyfe character anyway? Mr. Phyfe was an 18th-19th century cabinetmaker originally from Scotland, near Inverness. After emigrating to the states, he set up a successful furniture business in New York. He changed the spelling of his name from “Fife” to “Phyfe” to attract well-heeled customers. (Apparently, people love themselves some unnecessary P’s – just ask Price Pfister.)

Phyfe’s work employed neoclassical themes, and original pieces command huge prices.

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They are even exhibited in major museums (this poster is from the Met).

The style experienced a huge revival in the early 20th century through the early 1960s. This furniture is often called “Duncan Phyfe” but would more properly be referred to as “Duncan Phyfe style.” 

Many US furniture companies produced work in the style (and many still do). One of the seats (heh) of the American furniture industry, Thomasville, North Carolina, built an enormous chair to commemorate local furniture-makers. They built it from concrete and steel and chose a style they thought would also stand the test of time — Duncan Phyfe.

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LBJ standing in the “Big Chair” in Thomasville, 1960 (via).

I grew to love our phurniture. The finish has a great patina, and it’s very well-made. I really like the line of the legs, which is simple but elegant.

Oh, you have the camera out? That must be to do with moi.

Oh, you have the camera out? That must be to do with moi.

Our chairs have the iconic lyre back seen in the Thomasville memorial (which is still standing, in case you are looking for road trip landmarks). The backs are the only overt ornamentation, and they are surprisingly comfortable.

Mayya demonstrates the "seat" aspect of the chair. (Been meaning to reupholster these since Day 1; apparently, it's not a super-high priority!)

Mayya demonstrates the “seat” aspect of the chair. (Been meaning to reupholster these since Day 1; apparently, it’s not a super-high priority!)

Other back styles include carved roses and scrolls or fretwork.

 Rose back chair

Also look for subtle details like fluting and brass claw feet, especially on the classic drop-leaf table.

Duncan Phyfe-style dining furniture is readily available on the second-hand market. Occasional tables and upholstered pieces are trickier, but do crop up. On ebay and other national sites, sellers generally identify the style with the correct spelling, but on Craigslist, it’s more hit or miss. Try looking for “Fife” or just “mahogany” furniture. For the distinctive dining chairs, search for “lyre” or “harp” backs (I found similar chairs for use at larger parties by searching for “harp” chairs — $10 each!). I often see “rose” dining chairs as well, so descriptive searches are worth trying.

I still think it’s pretty grandma-y, but in a good way.

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6 Responses to Phancy Phurniture Phrom Phyfe

  1. Jan says:

    Great article! I grew up with a Duncan Phyfe style dining set, along with many other pieces. My paternal grandfather was a upholstered and ‘made’ a sofa for my parents as a wedding gift. In my mind, it has always spoke timeless style.
    Now, I’m playing with refinishing furniture and mostly find Duncan Phyfe style at the best prices because there is so much of it available. Because of the supply, it makes playing with color and finish endless and more appealing to the younger audiences.

    Thanks so much for the educational post.

    • Stacey says:

      Jan, thank you very much for the nice compliment! You are right, there is a ton of it available, especially on Craigslist. It seems like older antique furniture (pre-MCM, I mean) is out of favor right now. That’s ok with me! I would love to see some of your refinished pieces — stop back and share!

      • Jan says:

        Hi Stacey,

        Yes – I agree that there is a lot of pre-MCM furniture available on Craigslist right now. But… that means there is more to choose from for people like us! 🙂

        Most people don’t have the ability to see beyond the immediate (usually dull and dowdy finish and textiles). I love to retain beautiful wood grain when I can but it’s not always possible due to neglect or poor treatment of previous owners.

        If you take a look at my facebook page, you can see my current projects. I need to finish up on the Bergere chairs, as they are going to their new home in mid-July.

        https://www.facebook.com/ChairishedFurnishing/

        I’m not typically a blue person but it seems lately that everything I’ve done is some shade of blue! I need to branch out and try a few other colors.

        Keep up with the great work you’re doing and thanks again for posting this informative article.

        • Stacey says:

          Your work is gorgeous, Jan! I wish you were in our area — I really need some serious help with a rocking chair and an art deco vanity. Oh, well, they will be good winter projects!

          • Jan says:

            Thanks, Stacey!

            Send me pics of your projects and I’ll shoot back som ideas and articles. I am finishing up the Bergere chairs this week so please watch for updates.

            I have way too many projects and will need to part with some that I will not be able to get to. 🙁

          • Stacey says:

            Will do! I know what you mean about picking and choosing the projects…

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