From the February/March 2018 Issue

Shades of Light

Writer Ren Miller
  • The “Wisteria” lamp, produced circa 1905, is one of the most iconic lamp designs by Tiffany Studios. The pattern comprises nearly 2,000 pieces of glass. Consequently, each Wisteria lamp has its own distinct color variations. In 1906, the lamp cost $400; this one sold at Sotheby’s in 2013 for $1.56 million.

The Tiffany lamp is an icon of Art Nouveau style with a history of innovation, imitation and a little mystery.

Turn on a Tiffany lamp and the stained-glass shade comes alive, sparkling and glowing like fine gemstones. That’s no coincidence, given the lamps were developed under the auspices of Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of prestigious jeweler Tiffany & Co.

Today, the term “Tiffany lamp” refers to a style of light fixture with a stained glass shade available in a range of designs and prices from numerous manufacturers. The first Tiffany lamps, however, date to around 1895 and were handmade by skilled craftspeople at a succession of Tiffany glass companies, ending when Tiffany Studios closed in 1932.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, born in 1848, took a circuitous route to the stained glass windows and light fixtures for which he is most well known. At age 18, he began to study art with landscape artist George Innes. In his 20s, he traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, developing an interest in Islamic architecture, Romanesque and Moorish art, and Japanese ceramics.

On his return to the United States in 1872, he combined these artistic interests with the study of glass and mosaics, eventually creating an iridescent glass by exposing hot glass to fumes and metallic oxides. In 1885 he established his own company devoted to fine glass; eight years later he began making glass vases and bowls and experimenting with decorative window glass.

Tiffany also ventured into interior design, becoming perhaps the first “celebrity designer,” working for clients such as Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt and President Chester A. Arthur. In 1881, the newly elected Arthur refused to move into the White House until it had been redecorated; he hired Tiffany to work on the East Room, Blue Room, Red Room, State Dining Room and Entrance Hall, though his work was removed in subsequent redesigns.

When Tiffany’s father died in 1902, he became Tiffany & Co.’s first design director, but he still devoted much of his time to designing and manufacturing glass art objects.

A few years earlier, at the urging of Thomas Edison, Tiffany began to develop the lamps that would showcase both men’s crowning achievements.

Tiffany lamps are assembled using the copper foil method. The pattern is drawn on cardboard, with a number and glass color written on each pattern section. A piece of colored glass is placed on the pattern, traced, cut and ground to the correct shape. The pieces are cleaned and fitted around the edges with narrow strips of copper foil, and a solution is applied to bond them together. The pieces are then soldered together for a firm hold, and the finished product is cleaned.

Many of the lamps reflect Art Nouveau style. In fact, the Tiffany lamp became one of the icons of the Art Nouveau movement. The lamp was even subject to a mystery uncovered after nearly 100 years. Tiffany never disclosed the names of his designers, preferring to keep the spotlight on his own considerable talents. But a 2007 exhibition at the New York Historical Society revealed that Clara Driscoll and a team of talented craftswomen she supervised at Tiffany Studios had designed and executed some of the studio’s most prized and valuable lamps. The exhibition was based on research by Tiffany experts Nina Gray and Martin P. Eidelberg, a professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University.

Today, the legacy continues thanks to other manufacturers who have expanded on the designs. Original lamps by Tiffany Studios are showcased in museums and included in private collections. At auction, they often sell for $5,000 to nearly $3 million.