Q: This chair from Pennsylvania is over 100 years old. My 86-year-old friend would like to know about it. It belonged to her husband’s grandmother.
A: Seen in a photo sent, the chair is a type made around 1900. So yes, it is over 100 years old.
Imagine a large, finely carved openwork back medallion “floating” above a semicircle that forms a seat with curved arms that continue the semicircle. Legs are curved.
The chair style is Renaissance Revival and it was popular in America for quite a while, from 1865-1900. The seats were often called Savonarola chairs after the Renaissance friar who was a fiery reformer.
The reader’s chair is a particularly attractive example. While dramatic in design, it’s also aesthetically pleasing. There’s not a jarring note, design-wise, in the piece.
Fashioned of oak, a popular and widely used wood at the time, it seems to be golden oak, so called because of an orange shellac finish. The chair looks to be in excellent condition. Another plus are the scrolled, curved paw arms. Feet appear to be a simple scroll.
In late 19th- to early-20th century America, furniture styles experienced several revivals, from Empire to Rococo, and Renaissance. Victorian Renaissance was a later, heavier version of Renaissance Revival.
A word about that pierced back: It may be a pressed back that was then carved. Run your fingers over edge surfaces in the medallion. If they’re very sharp, they may have been finished by hand.
On www.liveauctioneers.com, we see that Savonarola chairs sold at auction last year and so far this year for $250-$850. As an attractive example, this chair could fetch, at auction, somewhere in the middle.
Q: Can you give me any info on my Duncan Phyfe sofa?
A: Born in Scotland as Duncan Fife in 1770 and later immigrating to New York, Phyfe became one of America’s leading 19th-century cabinetmakers. Oddly enough, Phyfe never developed his own style. He adopted existing ones.
More to the point of this query, his workshop became the generic name for a popular style of furniture. Long upholstered sofas with dark wood frames loosely Federal/Empire in style are often called Duncan Phyfe. Also characterized by scrolled upholstered arms and short splayed feet, Phyfe-style sofas were once found in many American homes, where they were considered a standard of elegance.
There is a huge difference between real Duncan Phyfe produced in his New York workshop circa 1815 and the mass-produced dining sets and sofas that were ubiquitous in American homes in the first half of the 20th century.
As with any widely adopted design, examples were made all over the quality spectrum. The sofa seen in a photo sent may be standard-grade furniture store merchandise of the 1920s or ’30s. Standard open work embellishments on the back support that scenario.
The problem is, there’s zero demand for Duncan Phyfe-style sofas today. The dark wood and high back turn off buyers, and big-and-heavy just doesn’t fit today’s lifestyle.
We found only one sold at auction this year, for $100. We found one for sale on www.etsy.com at $500. Thirty-six were listed on eBay, but only one sold, for $51.