- Louis Comfort Tiffany
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Louis Comfort Tiffany

Perhaps it doesn't happen as often today, but historically, when the "art gene" raises it's stubborn head in the progeny of the American family, it's more likely there will be an attempt to beat it down as to cultivate its growth. This was especially the case in the nineteenth century, when, to become an artist, practically guaranteed the appellation of "black sheep" of the family. And nowhere was this more likely than in the ranks of the "upper crust" in which a Victorian era baby's biography could almost be written before the umbilical cord was cut. A daughter was expected to choose a bright, ambitious, yet stable husband, live in a respectable New York brownstone, vacation in the Hamptons, and bear a brood of attractive children. A son was expected to either embrace college, or go to work in the family business and achieve beyond his father's best efforts. Fortunately for antique dealers all over the world today, one such Victorian era artist rebelled against just such "noblise oblige." His name was Lewis Comfort Tiffany.

Born in 1848 to the family of Charles C. Tiffany, young Lewis' proverbial silver spoon, no doubt came from his father's New York jewellery store empire, and indeed, as a boy, he seemed to take to the craft of jewellery making. But he balked at both going to college and entering the family business. Instead he took up a different art, studying landscape painting with Philadelphia artist, George Innes. Something of a playboy in his early years he travelled easily amongst the East Coast gentility, developing a deep appreciation of the decorative arts and the good taste to match. In 1879 he opened Tiffany Studios, an interior design firm that quickly became the arbiter of good taste in New York high society as the Victorian era reached its zenith. His influence was so powerful that he was able to launch an entirely new style of interior design, that which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

In business less than a decade, Tiffany landed the plum commission to redecorate two rooms of the White House, the Red and Blue Rooms. About the same time, his company developed Favrile iridescent glass, which launched the firm into the stained glass window business. But it was the happy circumstances of working with Thomas Edison, who was installing the first electric lights in the first movie theatre, (the Lyceum), while Tiffany's design firm was installing a massive stained glass window, that launched Lewis C. Tiffany into a whole new artform--portable stained glass windows--better known as stained glass lamps. Though Tiffany seldom actually made the lamps themselves, his designs, often based upon his studies as a landscape painter, were rendered by company craftsmen to his exacting specifications. From there, the designer ventured into the production of vases, shades, and glassware. His designs often included zodiacal figures, medieval motifs, Renaissance figures, peacocks, and dragonflies. Often, the designs were so complex they were impossible to fabricate in glass. Estimates are that only about one in a hundred actually found its way into a handmade work of stained glass art.

contributed by Lane, Jim

10 May 1999

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