Cosmic harmony. Who could pass that up? Not Greece 2000 years ago and not America and Europe 200 years ago.
Apollo was the mythological god of music and dance, and his stringed lyre was thought to represent not just artistic sensibilities but also harmony and heavenly peace, social order, and all that was rational in ancient Greece. The harp-like instrument and its sounds were understandably beloved by the Greeks — the lyre accompanied recitations of Homer — and by all the subsequent civilizations that came to revere Greece’s gifts to the Western world.
Like many other decorative symbols that hail from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world — urns, acanthus leaves, swags, skulls, rosettes, laurel wreaths, and so on — the lyre decorated interior and exterior walls of Renaissance palaces and villas. The shape remained constant: vertical “strings” sitting between two parallel arms that gracefully curve in, then out.
This particular musical instrument as furniture ornament came into its own a few hundred years later. During the late Neoclassic period, the lyre in fact became such a three-dimensional, large-scale component of tables and chairs, it wouldn’t be surprising if men and women didn’t try to pluck a few bars for their guests just to test the ancient myths.
The lyre wasn’t simply a painted or inlaid image timidly placed on some furniture surface. Instead, New York cabinetmakers like Charles-Honoré Lannuier and Duncan Phyfe seemed to have borrowed Apollo’s magical instrument itself to support the top of a card table or the back of a chair’s occupant. Interpreted through fine carvings, rich mahogany, and lustrous gilding, these sculptural lyres dominated the furniture they adorned, undoubtedly delighting domestic gatherings.
Craftsmen and clients alike were all mesmerized by the lyre whose symbolic harmony was a central value of the Greek Revival in early 19th century America. The young country was eager to emulate the ancient Greek republic and its democratic spirit.
And it didn’t hurt that fashion-forward France had paved the way with a dramatic decorative arts vocabulary intensely classical and touting many a lyre. The entire Apollo myth was in fact key to the iconographic Empire world which the architectural team of Percier and Fontaine created for the reigning Napoleon Bonaparte.
Even later in the early 20th century when so many disparate motifs vied for consumers’ attention, illustrator Walter Crane adopted the lyre motif for wallpaper.
But there should be no question as to the longevity of the lyre image.
Neoclassic sofas and daybeds — they came to be called Grecian couches — had popularized the lyre silhouette, a shape consciously echoing the concave convex movement of just one side of the famed instrument. The lyre shape first scrolls softly inward then, with a bold flourish, turns outward. The lyre shape was visually balanced, graceful, lyrical and distinctive. Duncan Phyfe knew this to be so. And so do today’s many upholstery designers and shelter magazine editors who still favor the grand but harmonious movements of the pedigreed “lyre arm.”
To explore these rich symbols of the Greek Revival, Empire and Regency styles in America and Europe, see the many Bienenstock Furniture Library materials on Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, and Charles Pericer and Pierre Fontaine, including the Recueil de Décorations Intérieures. Texts by Metropolitan Museum curator Peter M. Kenny are especially informative.