A Stained-Glass Menagerie
The Works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Especially His Leaded-Glass Lamps, are Much Sought After by Collectors
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
What does the name Tiffany mean to you?A pale-blue box holding something precious? Somebody's daughter?Breakfast?Or a colorful, leaded-glass lamp shade? If the answer includes the latter, you are familiar with the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), whose talent is synonymous with decorative, leaded-glass lighting fixtures patterned with Belle Epoque flower arrangements.
Just this winter, a high-profile sale of Tiffany lamps owned by Barbra Streisand set the auction world on its head with prices that hadn't been seen since the late 1980s. The Tiffany lamp has become part of American folklore and is thoroughly ingrained in the national character.
For instance, several North American restaurants, including chains, have adopted this motif over the past 20 years, following the success of the landmark New York restaurant Maxwell's Plum, which displayed some authentic Art Nouveau glass in its spectrum of ornamental leaded chandeliers, ceilings and bar fittings. Most of the inexpensive light fixtures that dangle over your head in beer-and-burger establishments, however, are as far removed from the original standards and taste of Louis Comfort Tiffany as the house wine is from Château Lafite-Rothschild.
It is unfortunate that cheap, leaded-glass lighting appears to be Tiffany's chief legacy to modern design. He was one of the most progressive and prolific creators in the history of American decorative arts. His disciplines included interior design, ceramics, jewelry and goldsmithing, bronze and other metalwork, enameling, lamp design, furniture, mosaics, stained-glass windows, artistic glass and oil painting.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was born into an era of unprecedented expansionism in the Eastern United States, much of it due to European immigrants whose ideas and skills Tiffany drew into his empire. His father, Charles Tiffany, had founded the Fifth Avenue
jewelry store (which still bears his name) eleven years earlier and was thus in an ideal position to pop a sterling-silver spoon into his prodigious son's mouth.
It is testament to the abilities and vision of the young Tiffany, however, that he opted not to pursue his father's business. He carved out his own career and destiny, much of which was literally forged in the highly successful bronze foundry he opened in Corona (a section of the borough of Queens in New York City) in 1892.
By that time, Tiffany had already established his credentials as an interior decorator with several prestigious residential and commercial commissions. One of the best-known was his work on the state rooms for President Chester Arthur's White House in 1883, which
were unfortunately dismantled during Theodore Roosevelt's administration 20 years later.Some of the best-known examples of Tiffany's decorating style that can still be enjoyed in situ are the anterooms and vestibules of the monumental Seventh Regiment Armory building on Park Avenue in New York, which was built in 1880 and still functions as an armory as well as a forum for North America's finest antiques shows.
Tiffany's preference at this period was for the Moorish taste of North Africa, where the young Louis had traveled on his own version of the "grand tour."His surviving canvases, painted en plein air in the deserts of Tunisia, confirm the young man's romantic attachment to a way of life that was entirely different from the clamor of New York City.
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