My friend and colleague Phil Roosevelt, Barron’s assistant managing editor, gleaned some fresh lessons about American innovation from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s his report.
Long before there was Steve Jobs, there was Duncan Phyfe. Operating from lower Manhattan in the early 1800s, he turned out products that were elegantly simple, impossibly sleek, eminently functional and strikingly pricey. People clamored to buy Duncan Phyfe furniture. It was, as one observer said at the time, the “United States rage.”
Just as Jobs distilled the best technology of his day into exactly the forms consumers wanted, Phyfe borrowed certain elements from contemporary European furniture, discarded other parts and fashioned a style that struck a real chord in the New World. “He was a brilliant adapter,” says Peter Kenny, curator of a captivating Duncan Phyfe exhibit now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He simplified the designs, stripped away excesses and came up with these beautifully balanced and symmetrical pieces.”
Naturally, Phyfe added some adornments of his own—lyre shapes for seatbacks, for instance, and small, intricate carvings. Working mostly with mahogany, he drenched his creations in stain and then brought them to a high sheen. The resulting style became one of the most shamelessly copied innovations in the history of American craftsmanship. The town of Thomasville, N.C., home of the big furniture maker of the same name, is so proud of its knockoffs that it has erected a 30-foot-high statue of a lyre-backed Duncan Phyfe dining chair.
You know the style: Perhaps you sat at a dark, Phyfe-like table as a child as your elders droned on about LBJ or Nixon. Perhaps that is the very reason you now shop at Armani Casa. Some people, however, absolutely adore Duncan Phyfe pieces. They’ll pay as much as $75,000 for a really nice, original lyre-backed side chair, says Elizabeth Feld of the New York antiques dealer Hirschl & Adler. A great collector-quality card table—everyone played Whist back then— might sell for $150,000. And the rarest of Phyfe card tables, with carvings of griffins, eagles and other figures, could command up to $400,000.
Barron’s went to the Met’s exhibit on the say-so of Eric Kerckel, a Manhattan-based artisanal carpenter of our acquaintance. He had gone to the show, looked under the pieces at the joinery, eyeballed the edges of surfaces and marveled at the simplicity of Phyfe’s toolkit. Prominently displayed, the kit contains some saws, a decent array of chisels and not much else. “It’s almost miniscule compared to what modern builders are using to produce vastly inferior results with no investment value whatsoever,” he wrote to us in an e-mail. “Phyfe powered his tools with his hands and his brains. Today, carpenters will use an entire truckload of power tools; they’ve taken away both the hands and the brains.”
Phyfe used his noggin in business, too. He did slip up once—failing to lower his prices after the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that, eerily like our own, resulted from speculative excesses and threw the economy into a tailspin. But generally speaking, Phyfe’s commercial instincts were strong. As strong as Steve Jobs’? Was D. Phyfe & Son truly the Apple of its day? Curator Kenny was at first taken aback by our analogy, then warmed to it and ultimately blessed it. Ditto for some antique dealers we called....MORE