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."
A Collector's Dream
Mooning over a Tiffany and owning one are two separate things. The pieces became hot commodities again in the 1950s when the Museum of American Craft in New York City (now The American Craft Museum) held a retrospective of Tiffany's work. Suddenly dealers were combing Grandma's attic, and Tiffanys have sold for as much as $2.5 million. Most of the floral leaded-glass shades sell for $30,000 to $150,000, although the simpler geometric ones can start at a mere $15,000. The lamps with rounded blown -glass shades and bronze bases start at about $5,000. In fact, all Tiffany's work is pricey. But for those who can scratch together the fee, the investment is worth it, says dealer Harry Wallace: "The value just keeps going up and up."
If you're serious about purchasing a Tiffany, the first step is to visit galleries, dealers and auction houses that have Tiffany pieces. Says Harry, "Get books, study the patterns, go into the top stores and decide what you want depending on price." And don't lose a moment's sleep wondering how a Tiffany might blend with your decor, says Gary E. Baker, curator of glass at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.: "Even in a sleek room, a naturalistic Tiffany lamp makes a fabulous focal point. Tiffany fits in today's eclectic look very well."
Once you're ready to buy, check out the piece and the dealer. "Deal only with someone who has a good reputation," says Lary Matlick, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York, one of the foremost dealers in Tiffany art. "The dealer should be willing to teach you all the tricks he uses to make sure the pieces are authentic."
Identifying a true Tiffany is not simple; a signature or markings are easily falsified, and imitations are common. "One favorite trick is to use a good piece of modern studio glass imitating Tiffany, grind off its signature and mark it LCTFavrile or LCTiffanyFavrile," Gary says. "I can't tell you how many people have brought me things from flea markets that are marked as Tiffany but that aren't." The best plan is to ask the dealer for the original documentation authenticating the piece and to tote it to an independent appraiser.
To find one, go through Sotheby's (www.sothebys.com) or Christie's (www.christies.com), auction houses in New York, or call the American Society of Appraisers in Herndon, Va., 703-478-2228. If you're lucky enough to find a Tiffany you can afford, latch on. As designer Michael Payne says, "It's a piece of beauty that will last a lifetime."
Tiffany's experimentation and intense creativity led him to develop new colors and leading and heating techniques. Perhaps as remarkable as his creative genius was his skill in directing an assembly of craftsmen and artists who crafted everything from glass to bronze, furniture, fabrics, enameling and jewelry. He even developed wooden molds and numbered templates for the lampshades, which enabled craftsmen to reproduce his designs in a seemingly endless variety of colors and glass textures. Here are some of his other breakthroughs:
- Extraordinary Color: Tiffany was the first to color glass with metal oxides, a method that yielded a range of 5,000 colors, formulas whose secret he guarded. "It was not only the hue he came up with but the colors within a hue," says Tiffany dealer Lary Matlick. "Within a hue of red, say, there was orange-red, yellow-red, blood-red. And by choosing different colors within a hue, Tiffany could create a flow of color," he says. "When you look at a good Tiffany lamp, you see not one color but continuous movement and variations within that same color."
- Favrile: During travels abroad, Tiffany became fascinated with the iridescent quality of ancient Roman and Persian glass. He and others during the Art Nouveau period — a late-19th century burgeoning of decorative arts in Europe and the United States — mimicked the ancient metallic sheen by applying chemicals, primarily metallic salts, to the glass surface. Tiffany patented his variations on the process, naming his glass "Favrile" from an old-English word meaning "made by hand." His Favrile vases, shaped like yawning flowers or slender stalks, stretch out from glass heated, colored and shaped repeatedly — in as many as 20 different phases — winding into sinuous forms that seem almost alive.
- Copper Foil: Tiffany bought the patent to a new process — copper foil placed around the edges of each piece of glass — allowing him to use a thinner lead line between glass segments, one he could incorporate into the design.