The Taste for Tiffany Lamps
“Let those who arrogantly despise their parents’ tastes beware. Let those who ruthlessly sweep out their attics pay heed. Not only is the fickleness of taste inevitable, but so is the phenomenon of conscientious revivals. A case in point is Louis Comfort Tiffany, zigzagging from a position where he was at the peak of chic around 1900 to the gutter of derision around 1920–1930 and then gradually, deliberately being rediscovered.”1
When Aline Saarinen wrote this in 1955, she was witnessing the changing tide in the taste for Tiffany’s glassware and decorative objects. Now, almost a half-century later, Tiffany and the work of Tiffany Studios has secured the recognition of museum curators and private collectors, achieving widespread public appreciation.
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) was an artist and entrepreneur of remarkable talent, breadth, and innovation. His accomplishments as a painter, interior designer, and artist in stained glass, blown glass, metalwork, ceramics, and jewelry were enhanced by his role as a businessman and his appreciation of modern technology. The popularity of the different media in which Tiffany worked varied among patrons, and Tiffany himself had disparate opinions of his craft. In particular, Tiffany did not feel that his distinctive and colorful lamps were preeminent among his creations. Contrary to Tiffany’s personal opinion, however, Tiffany lamps witnessed immense popularity when introduced, demonstrated by the quantity made by Tiffany Studios from the turn of the century until the company went bankrupt in 1932.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was the son of famed New York jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902) and grew up as a member of the New York elite, an advantage that would play into his early success as an interior designer. Tiffany’s early work as a decorator was in partnership with textile designer Candace Wheeler, painter and designer Samuel Colman, and woodworker and decorator Lockwood DeForest under the name of L. C. Tiffany and Associated Artists, in business from 1879–1883. The prestigious commissions that they executed were included in Artistic Houses in 1883, which illustrated the most sophisticated interiors by renowned architects, decorators, and cabinetmakers of the day. Perhaps the most distinguished of their designs included in the publication was created for the White House, which Tiffany and Associated Artists completed in 1883 for President Chester Arthur (1830–1886). They redecorated several rooms including the Transverse Hall. Tiffany made a screen of red, white, and blue stained glass centering an oval shield with eagles. A contemporary description called this space the most successful of the renovated rooms: “The light coming through the partition of wrinkled stained glass mosaic makes a marvelously rich and gorgeous effect, falling upon the gilded niches where stand dwarf palmetto trees, the silvery network of the ceiling and the sumptuous furniture.”2 While the work was widely praised at the time, it would barely survive twenty years. Though Tiffany was reaching the pinnacle of his glass career, Theodore Roosevelt disliked the aesthetic-style Tiffany interiors and hired McKim, Mead & White to replace them with more staid Colonial Revival decor.
Tiffany continued to do interior decoration after the dissolution of Associated Artists, but concentrated his focus on glass. In 1885 he founded the Tiffany Glass Company, which became the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1892. At that time he established a glass furnace in Corona, Long Island, and conducted many experiments with different kinds of opalescent glass. By 1894 he patented “Favrile” as a trademark for glass made in a wide variety of colors, textures, patterns, and finishes. Tiffany exploited the decorative potential of his glass, which included blown glass vessels as well as sheet glass that was used for stained glass windows and eventually for leaded glass lamp shades. Tiffany changed the name of his business one more time in 1900 to Tiffany Studios, still located in Corona, New York. Here, under one roof, Tiffany assembled the furnaces along with the artisans, designers, and craftspeople.
Lamp Production at Tiffany Studios
Among the various decorative objects produced at Tiffany Studios, the factory manufactured an extensive range of lamp shades, mostly in floral and geometric motifs. More than 300 designs were available in the 1906 and 1913 Tiffany Studios catalogues, including Peony, Poppy, Daffodil, Dragonfly, Laburnum, Magnolia, Pond Lily, Poinsettia, Roman, Venetian, and Lotus Leaf.
After the lamps were designed, the pattern was transferred to a wooden mold, which served as the support for the making of each lamp with its leaded armature. Though the designs were mass-produced, each lamp was an individual creation in the selection of its colored and textured glass, which by virtue of the medium was never the same. The Peacock lamp illustrated in Figure 1 was made in several color schemes, yet with variations in each leaded shade. The rich palette of blue and purple glass in this example is enhanced through the artificial illumination of the glass. This melding of colored glass with innovations made possible by electricity and incandescent light was Tiffany’s approach to gaining the effect of sunlight filtering through stained glass without the sun’s rays.3
Tiffany and His Glass
As is the case with most artists, Tiffany favored some of his creative endeavors more than others, just as the audiences to which they appealed were also quite divergent. In blown glass, Tiffany was able to combine his interests in the iridescent qualities of ancient glass, historicism in the choice of shapes and ornament, and his love of nature in his prevalent use of floral and other natural forms. Most of all, the blown glass provided Tiffany the opportunity for very creative experimentation in the forms, combinations of colors, and decorative design. Because of its sculptural, sometimes exotic, and visually stunning appearance, this glass attracted very sophisticated collectors, including some of his elite patrons such as the Havemeyers of New York. Unlike his other works, many blown glass pieces entered museum collections in the United States and Europe before 1900.4
Tiffany felt that stained glass windows, both ecclesiastical and landscape, were his most important work. Patrons included churches as well as wealthy clients who placed them in mausoleums and private residences. The Scroll and Vine window (Fig. 2) shows how Tiffany used the mottled and richly colored glass as an integral decorative feature of the landscape. This purely decorative window doesn’t need to rely on narrative, but celebrates the beauty of nature. In other windows, Tiffany layered the glass to create illusions of depth and dimension.
The venture that least satisfied Tiffany, was his lamp production; he never felt the lamps were of the same artistic caliber as his other works. This is somewhat ironic considering the leaded lamp shades were made using basically the same methods as the windows. Indeed, when Tiffany commissioned a biography written by Charles de Kay in 1914, the lamps were not included, despite the fact that there were chapters on his paintings, stained glass, Favrile glass, enamels and jewelry, textiles, interior decoration, and landscape architecture.5 “His plan of designing uniquely decorative objects for the home conflicted philosophically with the manufacture of his shades in multiples. The patterns, models, and increasing volume of orders led to uniformity.”6 Hence, even though there were variations in color selection as well as many possible combinations of shades and bases, it was not enough, in Tiffany’s mind, to compensate for the fact that the lamps were mass-produced.
Still, the lamps enjoyed a singular popularity with the public. In The Taste-Makers, Russell Lynes wrote in 1954 of their initial appeal: “A real Tiffany lamp was a prized possession of those who could afford a piece from the master craftsman’s own ‘studio.’”7 The prevailing taste of the twenties and thirties, however, leaned increasingly toward minimal ornament, and Tiffany did not adapt the designs of the leaded glass shades to the modern aesthetic. “He had been oversold; he was an old-fashioned cliché. He had lost his chic. Tiffany glass was shoved into the attic or sold to the junk man.”8 Tiffany Studios declared bankruptcy in 1932 when their liabilities of $481,595 exceeded their assets of $315, 907.9 Louis Comfort Tiffany died the following year.
Renewed Interest in Tiffany Lamps
The gradual revival of Tiffany glass was part of a reappraisal of the art nouveau style beginning in the 1940s. The Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg held the first public exhibition to reexamine Tiffany in 1956. It focused, in a positive light, on blown glass designs. “At present we witness a reaction against a preceding reaction, and Tiffany glass, held no longer to be the devil’s fifth column penetrating our homes, receives due homage.”10 Two years later Tiffany was again featured in an exhibition at the New York Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Of the 300 objects in the show, however, only eight were lamps. One, a Wisteria lamp (Fig. 3), was illustrated in the catalogue.11 The Wisteria was a very popular pattern in the large repertoire of Tiffany lamp designs. The lamps varied widely according to the particular glass that was selected, and the one shown in Figure 4 has a particularly magical and dramatic color range that suggests a sunset. The striations and mottling of the colored glass emphasize the background against which the blue foliage of the wisteria appears. The Wisteria lamp shade was again chosen and illustrated in the art nouveau exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960, and in 19th-Century America at the Metropolitan Museum in 1970.12 At long last, museum curators recognized the significance and decorative beauty of Tiffany lamps.
Also in 1970, Dr. Egon Neustadt (Fig. 4) published his collection in The Lamps of Tiffany. Dr. Neustadt, an orthodontist who was born in Vienna, began collecting Tiffany lamps with his wife, Hildegard, in 1935. Neustadt noted that when he brought his first lamp home and placed it on his desk, “Our friends didn’t like it.”13 Undaunted, Neustadt’s interest in the leaded glass shades and bases became all-consuming, making him the earliest serious enthusiast of Tiffany lamps, assembling an encyclopedic collection. Beginning approximately twenty years ahead of other major Tiffany lamp collectors, including Walter Chrysler, Jr., Lillian Nasseau, and Hank Helfand, he brought credibility to the field.
It was Neustadt, and not Tiffany Studios, who classified the different types of lamps. In his book, Neustadt developed a nomenclature to describe the various categories of lamp designs, which he organized according to the design motifs, whether floral or geometric, and the various shapes of the shades; the book also examines the lamp bases.
Dr. Neustadt’s passion eventually led him to acquire some 500 crates of glass in the 1960s, remnants from the Corona glass factory left over after Tiffany Studios went bankrupt (Fig. 5).14 Dr. Neustadt believed that the quality and variety of the sheet glass was Tiffany’s crowning achievement. An example that illustrates this point is the dichroic glass used in the Water Lily Orb (Fig. 6), which dramatically changes color upon illumination.15
When Dr. Neustadt died in 1984, his Manhattan apartment contained hundreds of Tiffany lamps and windows.16 He had already given 135 lamps to The New-York Historical Society in 1983, a selection of which is on permanent exhibition, and an equal amount remained in his collection, which has become the Neustadt Museum of Tiffany Art.17 An archive of the most important examples of Tiffany lamps and windows as well as a study center for glass is being established; the glass factory shards are currently being catalogued. A changing display from the collection is on view at the Queens Museum of Art, and a traveling show of highlights from the Neustadt Collection is on tour.18
Since other collectors began buying Tiffany lamps in the 1950s, interest in them has grown incrementally. Although the first major sale of Tiffany glass, by Coates-Connelly in 1966, did not include any lamps, by the early 1970s, lamps began to come into their own, with a Wisteria lamp selling for $14,000. By the 1980s, Wisteria lamps were selling for between $150,000 and $200,000 and now sell for $300,000 to $500,000. The largest and most important lamp collection to come on the market was the John W. Mecom, Jr., sale in 1995. The interest in Tiffany lamps has now reached an international market, with expanding sales in Europe and Asia. As Barbara Deisroth, head of Twentieth-Century Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s, New York, recently said, “Tiffany lamps are the only modern objects I have sold that retain their value; they can stabilize, but have always continued to climb.”19 This said, the taste for Tiffany lamps is well established, and even though not among Louis Comfort Tiffany’s favorite creations, the lamps have found permanence in the decorative tradition of the twenty-first century and in museum and private collections around the world.
Nina Gray is an independent curator and scholar. She was formerly the Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and the Assistant Curator of Architecture, Photographs and Prints at the New-York Historical Society.
2. E.V. Smalley, “The White House.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, vol. XXVII, no. 6 (March 1884): 806.
3. Louis Comfort Tiffany, “The Tasteful Use of Light, Color in artificial Illumination.” Scientific American (April 15, 1911): 373.
4. Robert Koch, Louis C. Tiffany, Rebel in Glass (New York: Crown Publishers): 122, notes that of the blown glass pieces made in 1894, thirty-eight went to the Smithsonian, fifty to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, twenty-three to the Imperial Museum of Fine Arts in Tokyo, and fifty-six were presented by H.O. Havemeyer to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
5. Charles de Kay, The Artwork of Louis C. Tiffany (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1914).
6. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, “Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (summer 1988): 75.
7. Russell Lynes, The Taste-Makers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954): 172–173.
8. Saarinen, 9.
9. The Art Digest, vol. VI, no. 15 (May 1932): 6.
10. Herbert Weisberger, “After Many Years: Tiffany Glass.” Carnegie Magazine (October 1956): 279.
11. Robert Koch, American Craftsman’s Council, Museum of Contemporary Crafts—Louis Comfort Tiffany (New York: New York Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1958): no. 256-264. The Wisteria lamp is no. 264.
12. The Museum of Modern Art, Art Nouveau, Art and Design at the Turn of the Century (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960): 107. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 265, 19th-Century America, Furniture and Decorative Arts (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1970).
13. Patricia Lynden, “I Was a Very Stubborn Person, A Visit to Dr. Egon Neustadt.” Connoisseur, vol. 209, no. 840 (Feb. 1982): 112.
14. The glass had gone to a Manhattan dealer who refused delivery, and then to a former Tiffany associate who stored it in a garage in Putnam County. When the associate died, the glass went to his attorney in lieu of payment for settling his estate. At some point the glass was brought back to Long Island, where it languished until purchased by Dr. Neustadt. Egon Neustadt, The Lamps of Tiffany (New York: The Fairfield Press, 1970): 15.
15. This globe was probably made for a newel post as a custom commission. The pair to this shade is in the collection of the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida.
16. James Barron, “Dr. Egon Neustadt,” Obituary. The New York Times, 12 April 1984: D27.
17. The museum collections are housed in several locations; many of the objects are on loan or are part of traveling exhibitions until a permanent site is established. For more information, contact Nicki Hassell at 718.361.8489.
18. The Neustadt traveling exhibition will be in Macon, Georgia, at the Museum of Arts and Sciences until February 8, 2002. It will then go to the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia, opening March 12, 2002.
19. Market information in this paragraph is courtesy of Barbara Deisroth of Sotheby’s.