Duncan Phyfe made chairs, sofas, tables, and other pieces that were renowned for excellence of workmanship and beauty of design. He is known especially for his use of mahogany, carefully chosen and handled to bring out the highest value of texture and color, but he also used other woods, including maple, rosewood, and black walnut.
Duncan Phyfe was an American cabinetmaker. He was born in Loch Fannich, Scotland, in 1768, a member of a family named Fife that emigrated to the United States in 1783 or 1784 and settled in or near Albany, N. Y. In the latter year Duncan was apprenticed to an Albany cabinetmaker. After completing his apprenticeship, he moved to New York, where the city directory of 1792 lists his joiner's shop at 2 Broad Street. He moved several times and finally settled in Partition Street (now Fulton Street). At the time of his marriage in 1793, he changed his name to Phyfe. At first he did business under his own name, but in 1837 the firm became Duncan Phyfe and Sons and from 1840 until his retirement in 1847, Duncan Phyfe and Son. As his business prospered, he bought nearby houses. Eventually he employed more than 100 journeymen. He died in New York City on August 16, 1854.
Phyfe's early work shows his indebtedness to Hepplewhite, Adam, and Sheraton. Later he seems to have been more strongly influenced by the Directoire and Empire styles. But Phyfe was never a mere copyist. His fame as perhaps America's greatest cabinetmaker rests on the beauty and excellence of his own style, which was characterized by slender lines and delicate but firm carving. The lyre motif commonly associated with him appears in chair backs and table bases. Although he designed furniture in the popular American Empire style, he considered it inferior. His finest pieces were made before 1825.