Is the next Duncan Phyfe lurking in the shadows?
My friend, Chad Stanton (aka the Big Chopperoo of Wood Choppin” Time fame), suggested that I might enjoy a video of a multi-panel discussion about craftsmanship and the Duncan Phyfe Exhibit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, when Chad suggests something, I’m prone to take his advice. Chad, a very creative guy, has learned to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly and is not apt to waste his time, or mine. The video presentation and discussion was good, very good. But after watching it, one thing stuck in my mind. I mean, it really stuck! One of the discussion panelists mentioned that when Phyfe was working in NYC, there was a community of highly specialized craftsman who had been established there for a hundred years or more, that was available to provide service to him. These guys were really specialized! I don’t mean like they were carpenters or joiners. I mean these guys were faux painters, carvers, gilders, brass casters, iron casters, veneer specialists and finishers! (And there are probably a dozen or more specialties that I’ve never even heard of.) So, when Mr. Phyfe designed the table below, he had plenty of well qualified help to get the job done.
This is the “brain-child” of an artist. It is, clearly, not the work of an individual craftsman. Incredible painting, gilding, inlay, patinating, the list goes on. Remember, Phyfe was running a business (much like Chippendale, Roubo, Sheraton, Leonardo and the other icons of our craft). He was cozying up to his clients, pouring them tea and doing his best to draw up the things that they wanted to see. Duncan’s shop was “crankin'” this stuff out! He was “bringing home the bacon” at a business in which making friends is much easier than making money.
Now to answer my own question: I’m sure, that today, there are any number of craftsman who are capable of re-discovering and applying the processes that would allow them to “mimic” the piece above. That said, I don’t think we’ll see the like of Mr. Phyfe, the entrepreneur anytime soon. Simply because that supporting cast of characters, that community of highly trained and experienced craftsman no longer exists as a part of “mainstream” trade. We’ve become accustomed to bringing our furniture home in boxes that are labled “no special tools needed for assembly”.
The other social-economic phenomena that clearly helped Mr. Phyfe was that he lived and worked at a time when the United States was growing by leaps and bounds. Manifest Destiny was the undercurrent of discussion in the salons and drawing rooms up and down the coasts, and a successful middle class of business people was being born.
The pendulum may swing back in that direction. But I, for one, don’t think I can hold my breath that long.