September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Walls of rubies, diamonds, and emeralds, stupendous gemstones used as everyday objects, the rich gleam of reflected light: that is stuff dreams are made of. But when, instead of the Thousand and One Nights, the scene is turn-of-the-century New York, when those glowing jewels are made into vases, lamps, windows, and screens, then the magician responsible for it all, far from being a jar-bound spirit, can be none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Of all the great American designers, none have been more imitated than Tiffany. And it is no wonder: the inventiveness of his creations and the sumptuousness of his colors and textures are both endlessly satisfying and deeply original. Within the great stream of the Art Nouveau movement, Tiffany has just as important a place as Gallé, Mackintosh, or the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte.
The splendid screen opposite is a good case in point. Large enough to be a major component in any room—it is seventy-one inches high and eighty-nine inches wide—it has all the rich, translucent color for which Tiffany is famous, while its theme of vines and flowers bathed in a golden light is typical of Art Nouveau’s most frequent motif. Influenced in part by the rococo, in part by the Byzantine revival of the 1880s, and in part by Japan, Art Nouveau looked to the world of vegetation for its twisting, turning stems and to certain flowers (water lilies, orchids, wisteria) for the intense but complex colors and the odd, hanging, twisted forms it favored.
Although its motifs are typical of Tiffany’s work, this screen is now unique. As far as is known, only two screens were ever made by Tiffany, and the other one, which was ordered specially for the White House, has since been destroyed. Of course, such things were always expensive: this screen probably cost around $750 at a time when few workers made as much as $1,000 a year.
It was typical of Tiffany that he chose to produce the relatively rare and expensive. From the very beginning of his career, he was one of a small group of designers who felt that quality came first, that everyday objects should be beautiful, and that the United States should develop its own styles instead of importing either the object or the fashion from Europe. By 1879 Tiffany already had helped found his Associated Artists, the first American firm committed to originality as well as to excellence in the decorative arts.
It was not just a question of making objects either. Tiffany’s stained-glass windows were in tremendous demand as well, so much so that in 1893 he opened his own foundry. The work he did there fitted right into the prevalent Art Nouveau look in which the public spaces of a house—entrance hall, living room, dining hall —often were thought to require a colored-glass window. Although it was a remnant of the Victorian tendency to make a cottage look like a shrunken cathedral, the mode endured; only now, the stained glass had to look right with the twining furniture, the off-color walls and upholstery— gray-greens, rather muddy mauves, extinguished chartreuses—and, of course, the architecture. As a leading and highly creative exponent of the style, Tiffany was an obvious source for stained glass. Although the screen is now unique, dozens of windows were produced in Tiffany’s workshops, and today thousands of fakes tempt the unwary.
Tiffany took many of his motifs from nature, and he worked hard at creating new materials to complement these motifs. It took steady experimenting with semi-opaque window glass to achieve the opalescent Favrile, that light made into solid form, which he used to fashion flower-shaped vases. At the same time, simplicity was important: the bowers, the open spaces on the screen, reflect a highly sophisticated sense of composition, where the most striking effect can be had by avoiding fussiness.
It was this kind of sensibility—together with the quality of his pieces—that made Tiffany one of the most successful men in America. And his achievement also seemed just right for the national mood. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s exhortation to empire came out in the 1890s; while Tiffany designed his glass, Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill and eventually became a President with a yen for expansion: for the first time the United States began to be recognized as a major power.
Tiffany belonged in this heady atmosphere. He, too, developed his craft and grew rich from it. It says something for the quality of his achievement that today Tiffany glass is sought quite as earnestly in Europe as it is here. America, until Tiffany, had been a country where liberty flourished but the best consumer goods came from abroad. By the time Tiffany was done, it had become clear that he was to the decorative arts what Thomas Edison was, just then, to the industrial world: the inventor of a new, specifically American product of extraordinary quality that could compete against anyone anywhere.