Vintage view: A look back at the Tiffany lamp

Kya deLongchamps explores the beauty of the Tiffany lamp and the surprising role played by women crafters in the firm’s glass workshop
Vintage view: A look back at the Tiffany lamp

Today, Tiffany lamps are treated as a type, not a brand. With blooming meadows of inexpensive stained glass shades on bronze style plastic/resin supports, they are as familiar in a high street lighting outlets as shrubby new Victorian chandeliers, or phoney Arco floor dippers.

A real Tiffany from the early 20th century (1895 – 1932) is a thrilling rarity, set apart on sight by its materials and the artistry of its execution.

Aged glass rattles in slightly infirm frames, a lead ring sits dutifully inside the base weighting the wide skirts of the shade.

Patination to the leading and the bronze (even applied in the studio a hundred years ago) now has an oxidised depth.

Above all things, fakers and followers find it hard to present the mesmerizing quality of those real Tiffany glass pieces soldered and mitred into position to reflect, refract and filter light from without and within.

Applied finishes glowing with intense density of colour, polished bosses, a richness and variety of tones and fascinating texture - these are a world away from the flat faces of a modern tiffany repro’ put together on a silhouette frame on a factory line in the Far East.

The real Tiffany lamps were unapologetic bespoke luxury pieces from the start - and achieved fame through heavily promoted store, gallery showings and exhibitions all over the world.

New Yorker, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) took over Tiffany & Co from his father, and had already worked for the White House and gussied-up Mark Twain’s home when he stepped away from the family firm.

He established The Tiffany Glass Company (later The Tiffany Studios), to concentrate on this medium in 1885, influenced by the great French makers including Galle.

Tiffany celebrated deliberate inclusions and alchemy in his formulas of glass – subtle aberrations that other glassmakers were actively fighting to exclude from their batches.

Glass lamp shades (and in some forms, stained and blown glass bases), were meticulously built by hand, working from lovely watercolour sketches through to the final product.

Only the rising upper middle classes and the wealthy could possibly afford them.

Bejeweling turn of the century salons, libraries, and bedrooms, these were largely accent pieces, but also showcased the treasured and recent arrival of electric light in the 1890s.

Several bulbs in the stem and top of the piece could be used to bring a lamp to a gem-like majesty.

The sculptural bases in patinated bronze were an integral part of the overall design, and even separated from their original shade, they are highly sought after by collectors.

Tiffany favoured what is termed the copper-foil method. Each piece of glass was selected, cut and numbered to a template by hand.

Using a wood support and metal silhouette made for that lamp, thin copper foil was applied to the glass edge and the shape built.

It was finished with an application of a heavier lead beading to give it stability and definition.

Tiffany and a clutch of male designers working with him in the studio, were originally credited with the most sumptuous of the geometric and botanical designs.

The flowered group, with their complex cones, globes and Art Nouveau puffs dripping with irregular blooms, leaves and small creatures, remain the most famous and sought after.

They had an especially feminine, romantic soul, which as it turns out a hundred years later, was due to the discreetly forgotten female hand and eye present in their making.

Louis Tiffany’s own designs, the purity and rhythms of his Nautilus desk lamp, in a simple green shell, is a star.

Tiffany artisans and artists used techniques, ancient and modern to manipulate the colour and texture of batches of ‘farvrile’ (hand-made) glass.

Plain, pot metal glass, (all coloured glass was created using metal additives), would be painted to shimmer opaque by day, some delivering startling colour drama when backlit.

Opalescent glass created by the addition of mineral salts was introduced in the 1870s.

This thick confection could be twisted and rippled to resemble silk or the veined fragility of leaves.

Louis had an experienced eye for the look of textiles, having worked with fabric designer Candace Wheeler since the 1870s in interior decoration.

Tiffany ‘confetti’ glass was a combination of a base colour and multi-coloured glass flecks, stirred into the warm batch glass.

The results once clipped out and composed, are eye watering masterpieces of lighting design.

Most American dealers don’t even look at a prospective Tiffany lamp without a provenance of several decades’ ownership in one family – the peers and pretenders are just too widespread.

The Tiffany story continues to develop.

In 1892 Louis C Tiffany established The Women’s Glass Cutting Department, which employed several female designers and dozens of artisans, to answer the demand for their lamps, windows and accessories, like desk sets.

Cartooning, selecting, copper foiling and designing - the department was always a well-respected element of the firm, although once married, a woman and even a top designer earning several thousand dollars a year, had to drop her tools and go.

Ten years ago this year, the place of American designer Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), was elevated when letters from her family archive found in the Queens Historical Society in NY, reassigned many important Tiffany pieces and bespoke lamps, including the Daffodil and Waterfall and the iconic Dragonfly, (prize winners at the Paris World Fair of 1900) back to her.

Her business acumen in what was a progressive company is also clear in the correspondence.

This summer, the New York Historical Society, on the corner of 77th St and Central Park, which celebrated Clara and her staff with a major exhibition ten years ago, has opened a 4,500sq foot gallery to show off its collection of 100 Tiffany lamps.

Unmissable if you take a bite out of the Big Apple on holiday this year.

To see the work of a master shade maker, visit the website of Scott Riggs who makes museum quality lamps and shades in the Tiffany tradition,

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