Artist Louis Comfort Tiffany will go down in history as the man who made glass magical.
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Turn back the clock to the late 1800s and imagine that electricity is something you've only heard about. Then imagine that — if you are rich enough — you've bought your first electric lamp, one with a shade that directs the light through whimsical designs created from pieced glass: "drawings" of dragonflies or spider webs, peacock feathers or peonies. As you stare at the lamp, you know you have never seen anything quite so sensual, vivid, exotic or distinct. Do that and you will understand the thousands of buyers who made Louis Comfort Tiffany the most sought-after artist, craftsman and interior designer of his time. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Tiffany and his studios produced work that revolutionized the art of glassmaking and married fine art to craftsmanship in American homes.
In spite of the fame of his glass lamps — the term Tiffany lamp is now an accepted generic name for any leaded lamp — Tiffany's passion lay in stained-glass windows (his studios produced some 20,000) and hand-blown glass objects. The son of the founder of the famous New York silver and jewelry firm Tiffany & Co., Tiffany took his rich beginnings and went his own way, beginning his career as a painter abroad and then learning to "paint" with glass as no other American artist ever had.
"Because he was trained as a painter, he never recognized the limitations of glass the way a glassmaker would," says Elizabeth DeRosa, an independent curator and adjunct professor at Cooper Hewitt Graduate Program in the History of Decorative Arts in New York City. "He was always experimenting." He experimented with color, with materials, with shape and with process. Says Elizabeth, "He was the Cecil B. DeMille of the arts world."
In 1885 he founded the Tiffany Glass Company (expanded and renamed Tiffany Studios in 1900), employing thousands of workers until it closed in 1928. Says Martin Eidelberg, a professor of art history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.: "He would bring in colored sketches and say to his workmen, 'Work this up.'" But not one piece ever left the studio without Tiffany's approval.
The Tiffany Legacy
"Tiffany's work is as popular today as it was in his time and will ever be so because he captured in glass and light the essence of natural beauty," says interior designer Michael Payne, owner of Michael Payne Design in Los Angeles and host of HGTV's Designing for the Sexes. "I look at Tiffany pieces and say to myself, 'It's only stained glass, Michael,' but then I get almost teary-eyed. You can only shake your head and say, 'It's magical.'"
Such intensity of praise is not the exception. It streams from soft-spoken professors, reserved art historians and contemporary glass artists alike. When Harry Wallace, manager of Lillian Nassau Ltd., a prominent dealer in New York City, saw his first Tiffany, he says he almost fainted. "It was an original Tiffany lamp and I knew I had to have it. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
Professor Eidelberg saw his first Tiffany as a teenager in 1950 and bought his first piece at age 23. "I walked into Lillian Nassau's shop and thought I'd discovered heaven." He's been collecting and studying Tiffany art ever since.
Still, the ardor Tiffany enjoyed in his own time came to a halt in the 1930s as Art Deco — a style emphasizing geometric shapes — grew popular. "People in the '30s to '50s thought his work was disgusting," says Margi Hofer, associate curator of decorative arts for the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture in New York City, which houses 132 Tiffany lamps, the largest permanent collection in the world. "They kept it in their attics. But a half-century later the aesthetic that his work reflects — Art Nouveau, naturalism — has come round again. That's all part of the cycle of culture and taste."
In fact, what survives is the timelessness of his genius. "All current designers will have studied Tiffany," Michael says. "They don't just get out of bed and start knocking out glass. They all owe something to Tiffany, and most of them are saying, 'If only my pieces could be as beautiful.'"
His work is eerily modern. "It's organic, fluid, wonky, expressive," says artist Richard Jolley, whose luminous glass sculptures, brilliantly colored, arresting, are pretty wonky themselves. "I used his work to understand how to do things. And his objects still hold up."