Tiffany Lamps: A History In Design

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Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) is the creator of the well-known Tiffany lamp. His career began as an oil and watercolor painter, but he became interested in glass while traveling in Europe and North Africa. His next career move was as an interior designer. He had commissions from Mark Twain and President Arthur, and stained glass windows were prominent in these designs.

In the late 1800s, stained glass was common in homes. The look came from painting acrylics on clear glass. Tiffany was interested in the chemistry of glass making, though. He was not pleased with the glass that was available, so he made his own. He experimented with ancient glass techniques, inventing the process to make opalescent glass, or Favrile. He is best known for this, aside from his stained-glass lamps.

He made windows with multiple layers Favrile glass and gold accents. His painting background showed through with the shading and texture. Tiffany’s windows were complete works of art.

Seven Categories of Tiffany Lamps

Tiffany designed all the accessories for his interior design business, but he was drawn to lampshades, because their colors and patterns could be seen with artificial lighting at any time. They were not dependent on daylight to be beautiful. The first lamp was exhibited in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, and they became available to the public in 1899.

Tiffany lamps were made in seven categories:

1. Favrile – The first designs and the simplest. Favrile is French for ‘handcrafted’.
2. Geometric – Simple designs of triangles, circles, squares and ovals. Geometric lamps were made of either many small pieces or a few large pieces.
3. Transition to Flowers – Combination of floral and geometric patterns. A geometric pattern had a floral border, or a floral pattern was on a geometric background.
4. Floral cone – Botanical and insect motifs (dragonfly most common and popular). These cone-shaped lampshades were easy to manufacture, since they had straight sides. Hence, there were many of them.
5. Floral globe – Globe-shaped. These were harder to make because of the curved shape, but allowed a detailed rendering of floral and insect motifs.
6. Irregular Lower Border – Flowing, serpentine lower border. These were botanical motifs of tree and shrubbery branches. This design had a very Art Nouveau look.
7. Irregular Upper and Lower Border – The crown of the lampshade was openwork of tree and shrubbery branches. The lamp bases were ornate bronze or pottery.

Natural motifs, Art Noveau, and the Tiffany Lamp

Tiffany was one of the masters of the Art Nouveau era. His free-flowing designs extensively exhibited nature motifs – dragonflies, spider webs, peacock feathers, wisteria, grape vines, peonies and butterflies. Even though the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, Art Nouveau décor was handcrafted and out of reach of the general public. Tiffany lamps were hand made, requiring skilled craftsmen. Tiffany Studios employed about 300 workers, and Clara Driscoll was the head designer.

Tiffany lamps were very popular until Art Deco and Art Moderne replaced Art Nouveau in the 1920s. The new styles reflected the Industrial Revolution. Designs were sleek, simplified and smooth, like a speeding train. Forms were aerodynamic with little ornamentation. Furniture and accessories were mass-produced of new materials: plastic and steel. The elaborate, handmade Tiffany lamp fell out of favor.

Timeless Tiffany lamps

However, in 1958, Tiffany was rediscovered in a retrospective Tiffany show. In 1960, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City put on an Art Nouveau exhibition, where Tiffany lamps regained their popularity.

Today, a genuine Tiffany lamp with a dragonfly or floral motif can sell for two million dollars. This shows that Tiffany design is timeless and the quality is outstanding.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.