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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) and Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819)

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honoré Lannuier were the acknowledged leaders of the New York furniture trade. Both immigrant craftsmen, they established a distinctive New York style of cabinetmaking that incorporated contemporary European design. Americans throughout the young nation considered their work to be the pinnacle of taste and sophistication.

Phyfe came to the United States from Scotland in 1784. He settled with his family in Albany before relocating to New York City in 1791. By 1800, he had established himself as a cabinetmaker on the move. Over the next two decades, Phyfe purchased a number of properties on Fulton Street (24.90.1320) near City Hall and New York’s most fashionable shopping destinations to house his manufactory and wareroom. A watercolor (22.28.1) rendering of Phyfe’s operation illustrates the extent of his production capabilities, which many of New York’s wealthy residents frequented for their furnishing needs.

Phyfe’s greatest contribution to the industry was perhaps his role in introducing the city to a unique blend of the English Neoclassical and Regency styles—found in design books such as Thomas Sheraton’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (1793; NK2229 .S54 1793) and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). His shop is thought to have greatly influenced the aesthetic interests of local patrons. Along these lines, the cabinetmaker introduced elements such as lyres (65.188.2), harps, and fasces into his furniture that related contemporary decorative arts to the motifs of classical antiquities. Because Phyfe’s career lasted through the 1840s, his shop eventually transitioned to produce wares in the Late Grecian (Greek Revival; 66.221.1, 68.202.1) and Rococo and Gothic Revival styles, as well.

Only rarely did Phyfe attach a trade label to his furniture, and few objects in the “Phyfe style” can be conclusively linked to the cabinetmaker through documents or family histories. Historians presume that Phyfe’s confidence in the skill of his craftsmen and the prominence of his style precluded the need to assiduously label his furnishings. One of the most thoroughly substantiated Phyfe commissions includes a suite of chairs and matching sofas made in 1807 for the New York townhouse of prominent banker William Bayard. A surviving invoice from Phyfe confirms the sale. In 1931, Henry Francis du Pont purchased from the nephew of Bayard’s granddaughter ten side chairs, two armchairs, and a sofa thought to be from this commission. They now reside in the Winterthur Museum’s Phyfe Room.

Honoré Lannuier trained in Paris as an ébéniste (the French term for cabinetmaker) before relocating to New York in 1803. From 1804 until his death in 1819, he operated a shop at 60 Broad Street, among the city’s thriving manufacturing and financial districts. Lannuier first offered his patrons furniture executed in the delicate Directory (1795–99) style before moving on to the more robust French Consulate (1799–1804) and Empire (1804–15) approach. Extant artifacts such as a console table of 1803–10 and a bedstead of 1817–19 reveal his reliance on journals and books published by French designers such as Pierre de La Mésangère (1761–1831; 30.80(1)10), and Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853) (28.40.1). To compete with those working in the more restrained Anglo-American taste, though, Lannuier occasionally melded the two approaches into an assimilated style that would appeal to a broad range of consumers. Like Phyfe, Lannuier often incorporated decorative elements taken from the architecture and furnishings of ancient Greece and Rome.

The ébéniste promoted his European training and knowledge of contemporary Parisian modes by attaching a trade label to his furniture that was written in both English and French. Lannuier also continued the French tradition of using an estampille, or stamp, to mark his wares. Such methods were an important form of advertising and ensured that a curious customer would know from whom an associate’s belongings had been purchased. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lannuier used these marketing techniques regularly, and thus a sizeable body of marked furniture is known today.

In consideration of their prominent position within the cabinetmaking trade, other artisans copied the work of Phyfe and Lannuier to draw more business into their shops. In the account book of New York furniture maker John Hewitt, one finds references such as “Phyfes Collum [sic] 23 Inches with leafe carv’d 2 8/7 wide/ Lanaus Collum [sic] 2 ft 3 Long 2 1/2 wide Bottom.” This reference suggests that Hewitt used detailed measurements from the wares of these preeminent craftsmen in order to produce furniture closely modeled after their work. Furthermore, Phyfe and Lannuier often influenced one another’s aesthetic approach. A labeled Lannuier chair (31.44.2) closely resembles the Anglo-American style of the aforementioned suite made by Phyfe for William Bayard. Occasionally, wealthy New Yorkers like Bayard would patronize both Lannuier and Phyfe depending on their shifting tastes and household needs. Bayard placed a wardrobe and dressing table purchased from Phyfe in 1807 adjacent to a French bedstead acquired from Lannuier in 1805. Bayard returned to the French ébéniste‘s shop in 1817 to obtain a partial suite of parlor furniture to present to his daughter Maria in honor of her marriage to Duncan Pearsall Campbell.

New York cabinetmakers like Phyfe and Lannuier could increase their chances at financial success by taking advantage of the city’s role as a prominent port. Some exported their wares to markets in America’s Mid-Atlantic and Southern states in addition to destinations in the Caribbean, such as Cuba and Guadeloupe. These manufacturers could either ship large lots of furniture on a speculative basis for sale in Southern stores, auction houses, and warerooms, or would work on consignment for particular customers in those locales. Generally, the wares sent on a speculative basis were of a lesser quality than those ordered directly from the cabinetmaker. For example, in an 1816 letter to wealthy Philadelphian Charles Bancker, Phyfe included illustrations and prices for the elegant chairs he could offer. While of a slightly different design, a set of chairs with curule-shaped bases and splats (60.4.4) in the Metropolitan’s collection is attributed to Phyfe based on these drawings. This connection between Northern craftsmen and Southern consumers is reinforced through the Museum’s Richmond Room (68.137), which combines an architectural interior from that city with the elegant Empire-style furniture of Phyfe and Lannuier, both of whom benefited from the patronage of wealthy Southerners.

In addition to standing among the most prominent craftsmen of their era, Phyfe and Lannuier have become two of the most recognized names in the field of American decorative art scholarship. A series of museum exhibitions that began in 1909 and the efforts of collectors and antique dealers in the early twentieth century solidified this position. With such notoriety came the desire to associate objects with the shops of these cabinetmakers. When a historic artifact can be conclusively linked to a particular artisan, it becomes both more significant academically and more valuable monetarily. By comparing pieces of furniture that carry a signature, trade label, or stamp to those that do not, museum curators attempt to attribute unmarked objects (1985.236ab) to a particular craftsman’s shop by analyzing aspects of design, materials, and construction techniques.

Since Lannuier so avidly labeled and stamped his wares, a large body of extant furniture can be confidently connected to his shop. With Phyfe, who attached labels only infrequently, such considerations are much more complex. The problem is compounded by the attention his shop received in the early 1800s as well as in the early 1900s. Early nineteenth-century craftsmen working in the style of Phyfe, like John Hewitt, were able to provide high-quality wares with similar designs that cloud the attribution process. A number of objects that were originally thought to have come from Phyfe’s shop are now considered to be the work of one of his competitors (31.44.11). Furthermore, the interest of collectors at the turn of the twentieth century resulted in a large number of reproductions of his work that can also confuse modern scholars and collectors. Immigrant German furniture maker Ernest Hagen (1830–1913) served not only as the first historian to document Phyfe’s career but also helped to promote this renewed attention through the production of chairs and sofas in the style of “Phyfe’s Antique.” This is a term that is used by furniture salesmen even today, for the Scotsman’s designs have never completely fallen out of favor. Phyfe became the first American cabinetmaker to serve as the subject of a comprehensive retrospective with the Metropolitan Museum’s 1922 show Furniture Masterpieces of Duncan Phyfe. In 2009, the Museum again highlighted Phyfe’s career in a landmark exhibition that tackled these complex questions of taste and manufacture. Lannuier served as the focus of a similar project in 1998.