The Distinctive Quality Of Duncan Phyfe

The distinctive quality of Duncan Phyfe, like that of the great eighteenth-century cabinet-makers, results from the combination of a number of elements which are treated in ways characteristic of his methods of design and execution. To arrive at a full appreciation of his work it is necessary to analyze the elements of his style, determining just what are their origins and how his use of them records his personal treatment in which his affection for his work and the consistency of his taste were the ultimate cohesives. Such an analysis holds also the suggestion of a way in which modern cabinet-makers and designers, basing their work upon traditional motives, of which Phyfe appropriated but a comparatively small number, may develop equally personal styles of their own.

Phyfe, for several reasons, is the only early American cabinet-maker to whom may be definitely attributed a large group of pieces. To Savery of Philadelphia and to Goddard in Rhode Island, the attribution of a number of pieces is made upon the basis of similarity to one or two authentically

DETAILS OF SOFA ARMS AND LEGS, CARVED PANELS FROM SOFAS AND FROM CHAIR-BACKS

documented examples of their work. To Phyfe, howevlr, a very large number of documented articles of furniture are ascribed, and such attribution is strengthened by a very marked consistency of important characteristics.

The elements of Phyfe's style fall into two groups. The first of these is the furniture design as a whole, its proportion and line. Both of these are strikingly characteristic. The second element is that of the decoration which he employed, a characteristic second in importance only to the general design as a guide for the amateur to identify Phyfe furniture. Less important are the materials used and the furniture forms themselves. A review of these elements will show that there is a consistent feeling for certain proportional relations and certain combinations of line; that the decorative elements limited by taste are few in number but combined in many ways; that the furniture forms do not include every piece of furniture but are restricted to those which experience had shown could best be treated in the personal style which Phyfe was developing. The materials, too, which he used are carefully chosen for certain qualities of colour or texture which are maintained at the same high standard in most of his early work.

The analysis of his proportion is difficult. Its general effect is that of an exquisite balance between vertical and horizontal structural members. In his design one sees a very strong sense of structural integrity and economy in construction. In legs of tables, chairs, and sofas, the supporting effect is frequently emphasized by reeding or carving which carries the eye in the proper supporting directions up and down. These vertical supports are reduced to the smallest dimensions commensurate with complete stability, showing that economy of material which is indicative of the most developed forms of structural art. The horizontal elements, heavier, of necessity, than the vertical, are proportioned to the whole height of the piece in much the same manner as are the entablatures of the classic orders of architecture. Thus in a small card or console table the skirting is shallow, its lightness emphasized by veneered borders or tiny bead moulding at the bottom, its whole depth happily proportioned to the total height of the piece. In a library or dressing table—two variations of the same problem— where it is necessary for utilitarian reasons to introduce one or more drawers which require a deepening of the skirt, the supports are either made heavier, proportionately, or are coupled at the ends to suggest greater strength.

The proportions which Phyfe found pleasing in his earlier pieces are those suggested by the designs of Adam and carried on by Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the French cabinet-makers of the Directory and the Consulate. Even more than do these, Phyfe observes integrity of structure based upon architectural lines, and his furniture shows fewer lapses from just proportional relations than that of his famous predecessors while confessing in many cases an increased lightness and refinement.

The structural curves which Phyfe employed show his real freedom in design. They are all fine, firm, freehand curves, which, while in many cases giving the effect of lightness, at the same time suggest adequate and solid support. His reverse curves, which occur both in chair and table legs, have as convincing a strength as any of the

PLATE XXXI.

DIXIXG-TABLE

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How To Sell Furniture

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