Louis Comfort Tiffany brought nature’s beauty indoors with his luxe glass creations, which are being highlighted in several current museum shows.
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Surely you’ve heard the phrase, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” This isn’t entirely true for the wares of Tiffany Studios, an umbrella moniker for the various businesses that artist and entrepreneur Louis Comfort Tiffany launched in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even at the time, no one else made things to the standard that Tiffany demanded from his teams of artisans. Son of the founder of the American jeweler Tiffany & Co., he grew up enjoying the best and wanted the products that bore his name to reflect the best. He invested enough time and labor in his vases, windows, mosaics, pottery, and lamps to give his staff bean-counters pause. (Tiffany Studios ultimately went bankrupt in 1932, and Tiffany died the following year.)
If the history of art and antiques teaches us anything, it’s that going the extra mile to create something truly extraordinary pays off, though perhaps not in time to cover your monthly rent, nor are you guaranteed to see it happen. Tiffany was acclaimed in his lifetime, and his gorgeous objects were cherished, but if he were alive now, he would be taken aback by how widely and how well his legacy is adored. Two current museum exhibitions celebrate him. “Shade Garden: Floral Lamps from the Tiffany Studios,” on view at the Queens Museum in New York through November 2015, is the latest fruit of the partnership between the museum and the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, a private foundation in the borough of Queens. The Richard M. Driehaus Museum of Chicago offers “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection,” a selection of more than 60 pieces from Driehaus’ holdings of around 1,500 Tiffany objects, on view through June 29. In addition, a third Tiffany show will begin in July at the Airport Museum of San Francisco. Drawing on objects loaned by California auctioneer Allen Michaan, the show, “A Radiant Light: The Artistry of Louis C. Tiffany,” will end in January 2015 and is expected to be seen by as many as 25 million people. Beginning in late 2012, Michaan’s Auctions, in Alameda, Calif., has held several sales deaccessioning the former holdings of the Garden Museum in Matsue, Japan, once the world’s largest collection of Tiffany objects.
Lindsy Parrot, curator of “Shade Garden,” chose 20 lamps that illustrate how closely and carefully Tiffany depicted nature and how his designers and artisans tackled the task of translating flowers into glass accurately without falling prey to pedantry. “Some of the [lamp] shades, such as the apple blossom, were simple, and some of the designs were much more complex, and they had to come up with more complicated ways to portray the design,” says Parrott. “I wanted to highlight the different ways of how the different glass selectors could communicate a flower in a realistic manner.”
Selectors were the Tiffany employees who held the crucial job of picking precisely the right bits of glass to make up a lampshade. Tiffany reserved this role for women, believing that their gender granted them a superior sensitivity to color. Interestingly, while the phenomenon of color-blindness was known to medicine in Tiffany’s day, it’s not clear that he was aware of its existence. Nor is it clear whether medical researchers had then confirmed that the condition afflicted more men than women—as many as eight percent of all men have some form of it. It should be said as well that not much is known about Tiffany as an individual. He did not write an autobiography, nor are there biographies of him from his era, and his surviving letters generally don’t yield any personal insights. In favoring women as glass selectors, he might have gone on instinct, or he could have carried forward the prevailing stereotypes and convinced himself that the so-called gentler sex would inherently possess more aptitude for honing in on the ideal shade of blue for the background of a dragonfly lamp.
Regardless, Tiffany hired the most skilled people he could find and supplied them with the finest materials, much of which came from his own glassworks. If anything, Tiffany might have oversupplied his selectors. The Neustadt Collection includes more than 275,000 sheets of glass left over from the closure of the Tiffany Studios; Parrot reports that there were several different greens, created in different shades, textures, patterns, and levels of transparency. The combination of a formidably talented staff and an endless palette consigned Tiffany’s competitors to also-ran status. The array of glass choices freed Tiffany selectors to imbue their work with exquisite subtleties such as letting the yellowy-green leaves of spring gradually melt into the darker, deeper greens of summer. “They could choose from realistic and naturalistic colors,” she says. “The others [Tiffany’s rivals] didn’t have access to that range of hues.”
The Driehaus show concentrates on highlights gathered by the ardent collector, who was initially smitten with Tiffany windows and broadened his scope from there. It also marks the formal gallery debut of the second floor of the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, the venue to which Driehaus makes his loans. Previously, the floor had been open to visitors, but it had not been used as a gallery space, though that was always the intention. David Hanks, curator of the Driehaus show, observes that the Nickerson’s opulent 19th century bedrooms provide an ideal backdrop for Tiffany objects because they are literally at home there. “It’s not like an installation in an art museum with white walls,” he says. “It’s a richly decorated room already, from the same era. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s what a modern art museum couldn’t do. And the bedrooms, though they are large bedrooms, are on an intimate scale that is very good for looking at decorative arts.”
Unlike the Queens exhibit, which lasers in on floral lamps, the Driehaus spotlights a range that includes an ecclesiastical candelabrum of bronze and molded glass, created to delight the crowds attending the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago; an exceedingly rare circa 1910 lamp ringed with nautilus shells, each capable of holding a petite sprig of flowers; and stained glass windows that are as technically accomplished as they are beautiful. One of them, simply called Landscape window and assigned a date span of 1893–1920, incorporates actual pebbles into its border. Unfortunately, photographs of the 80-inch-by-44-and-a-half-inch masterpiece don’t quite capture the unorthodox materials in their glory, but yes, it is in fact edged in flat, river-polished pebbles. “It’s one of Tiffany’s innovations—really bringing nature into the window,” Hanks says.
Tiffany’s deep and abiding love of nature and its flora—gardeners the world over can only dream of the flower-strewn life he lived—was matched, almost, by his willingness to embrace the new. Tiffany’s career played out at roughly the same time that Thomas Edison was performing the cutting-edge work that would turn the world electric. “In 1900, only 9 to 10 percent of the U.S. was electrified,” says Ben Macklowe of Macklowe Gallery, a New York-based Tiffany specialist dealer. “Having an electric lamp was a sign of wealth. To use it artistically was very, very forward-thinking on Tiffany’s part.”
Marinated from day one in a world of luxury, Tiffany ran a luxury business and priced his goods accordingly. The 1906 catalogue gives prices on two sizes of the beloved, iconic Wisteria lamp: $400 for the large version, and $200 for the smaller “pony” version. The steep price didn’t dent its popularity any. A surviving 1905 letter written by Clara Driscoll to her family reported that her selectors had pieced together 125 Wisterias, and had made so many that they had actually worn out the brass templates for the design. Wisteria lamps remained in production at Tiffany well into the 1920s. In truth, the three-digit prices for Wisterias were bargains, given how labor-intensive they were. Every lampshade featured almost 2,000 pieces of glass and required many hours to make. Parrott cites a terrible incident in which the Tiffany girls had laid out half a dozen Wisterias and were racing to meet a deadline for them, and the cleaning lady came in after hours and bumped her head on the underside of the table, upsetting several laid-out stretches of glass that were presumably bound for the solderer that morning or very soon for sure. “I wonder if it [the incident] could possibly be traced to some Wisterias that look a bit haphazard in their color relationships,” says Parrot.
The Neustadt Collection contains two Wisteria lamps. Only one is included in the exhibition, but the two examples show just how different anonymous selectors could make the same Tiffany design their own creation. “The one that is included in ‘Shade Garden,’ I think, is better selected, more coherent. The glass selection can distinguish one chain of blossoms from the next,” Parrot says. “The other lamp we have I don’t think is as successfully selected. It’s a little difficult to distinguish where the chains begin and end in some passages, but I like the glass better.”
Variations in the execution of the designs transform individual Tiffany lamps into works of art, and they nourish different camps of collectors who pounce on what appeals to their own tastes. “I have two examples of Daffodils right now,” says Arlie Sulka of Lillian Nassau, a gallery that has handled Tiffany since 1945. “One is so subtle, with not a particle of blue in it, and one has the richest, bluest background—it’s phenomenal. And someone might come in who won’t like it [the second Daffodil] because it’s more vibrant, and they may not like vibrant.” The camp of collectors who swoon over the stronger, more saturated colors is on the rise. Jack Ophir, a dealer based in Englewood, N.J., warns that Tiffany does not begin and end with it. “Color is not enough,” he says. “The color has to follow serious artistry, and that will determine a good lamp.”
Tiffany lamps are unusual because they accommodate liberties that simply would not happen with other antiques. For instance, it is perfectly okay for a dealer to divorce a shade and a base and pair them off with mates that are better suited to each. Why? Outside of a handful of lamp designs that come with prescribed bases, including the iconic Wisteria, Tiffany Studios allowed customers to choose from a menu of base and shade designs and order the combination that they found most pleasing. Tiffany did it, ergo it is fine for everyone else to do it, even curator Parrott, who engaged in some mixing and matching for aesthetic purposes when assembling “Shade Garden.” The same goes for converting a fuel-burning lamp to an electrified lamp; Tiffany’s boutiques routinely fulfilled these requests as well, so the switch is utterly uncontroversial. (Driehaus is the one exception to this free-for-all; the lamps in its show reflect the configurations they had when Driehaus acquired them.) “At this stage of the market, it’s rare to get a Tiffany lamp that left the studio exactly that way,” says Sulka, who nonetheless has four original lamps in stock at the moment. “Two match so perfectly I could never feel comfortable changing them,” she says. “The other two would be acceptable to change.”
One consideration about Tiffany lamps that may not dawn until you try to install one in your own home regards what sort of bulb to screw into its socket. Parrott concealed LEDs inside conventional-looking bulb shapes to illuminate the floral lampshades in “Shade Garden.” “As a purist, I would love to show them with reproduction Edison bulbs, but they burn too hot and they burn out too quick,” she says. “When you peek under, you can see the shape of the bulb that would have been in there. That’s important to me.” Parrot alone has embraced LEDs for her Tiffany lamps. Sulka, Ophir, Macklowe, and the designers of the Driehaus show all rely on incandescents, though the Driehaus show does light its windows with LEDs. The “Shade Garden” bulbs burn at a brightness that corresponds to a range of 15 to 25 watts. Parrott prefers the LEDs because they give off less heat, which can crack the precious glass, and because she likes them. “I’m really happy with the way they look,” she says. For collectors who want to use their lamps at home, Alan Schneider, owner of The Antique Traders in San Francisco—a Tiffany specialist in business 45 years—makes the following suggestion: “If you want a bright cheerful exposure, I’d put in 60- or 75-watt bulbs. For a subtle look in a lamp that is just an accent piece for a room, you could use 15-watt bulbs.” Schneider points out that the degree to which a lamp’s design recesses the bulbs from the glass affects the risk of cracking.
Modern bulbs show off Tiffany’s glass to its best advantage, with far fewer risks of lasting damage. Tiffany was precisely the sort of person who would go to the trouble and expense of weaving in colors, shades, and details that the technology of his day could not reveal. Though there is no proof that he deliberately loaded his confections with colors and shades that period light bulbs could not bring out, it’s fair to say that his lampshades are more magnificent now than ever, and a century of electrical engineering improvements should get the credit. “If Tiffany was around today, he would be delighted,” Parrot says. “He was interested in new technology, and he would be thrilled that the white [LED] light shows off his glass.”
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