In 1885 Louis Comfort Tiffany revolutionized the artistic use of lightbulbs, a relatively new development, with his commission for the Lyceum Theatre. Working with Thomas Edison, Tiffany created decorative and stage lighting for the New York theater, the first in the world to have electric illumination. In that same year Tiffany Glass Company was incorporated. He was also commissioned to decorate rooms at the White House, which gained him immense acclaim and notoriety. Tiffany then went on to create distinctive metalwork and blown-glass lighting fixtures as part of his elaborate interiors for the home of Louisine and Henry Osbourne Havemeyer’s home in New York. All of these events were the precursors to the Leaded Glass Lamps created by Tiffany Studios that are most commonly recognized today as Tiffany Lamps.
With the completion of the Corona Glass factory in Queens, Tiffany was able to produce glass in the colors and forms he desired. This greatly affected the way Tiffany’s company, later Tiffany Studios, produced all glass objects, from Stained Glass to Favrile vessels. But its greatest effect was the capability to produce glass for use in lamp shades. In 1894 Tiffany exhibited a blown glass globe intended for a fuel lamp in the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The fuel lamps, which were being produced by Tiffany Studios, were also included in several of Bing’s gallery exhibitions. In 1898 the company published a publicity brochure entitled Tiffany Favrile Glass-Lamps. All of these early lamp examples were fuel lamps, and few survive today. In early 1898 Louis C. Tiffany’s glass works began to produce electric lamps, exhibiting one such example in the Paris Salon that year. Lamps previously designed for fuel use were marketed as “Oil or Electric”. Electric lamps eliminated the need for bulky fuel containers and slender bases could now be made to support the shade, such as the popular Favrile Lily Light design. By the next year Tiffany had also begun producing leaded glass shades in earnest.
The majority of the leaded lamp shades produced at Tiffany Studios were made using essentially the same techniques used to create their famous stained-glass windows. First, a detailed sketch was created of the design, often several sketches were needed to capture the complexity of a design in full. Then a fan shaped water color was created to translate a three-dimensional form into two dimensions. Often a design was repeated around the shade, in certain instances, such as the Poinsettia chandelier in which each flower and background segment are unique. The design was then transferred to a wooden mold. Brass templates were made for every piece in the design and were used as a guide when the glass. Selectors or Colorists choose glass for each design based on color, texture, and pattern. These technicians were mostly women, as Tiffany believed they had a superior sense of color, especially when dealing with floral designs. Once each piece of glass was selected and cut to shape, it was wrapped in a thin piece of cooper foil cut wide enough to cover the edge of the glass and slightly overlap on the sides. The foiled pieces were placed on the wooden mold and soldered together, then a heavy rounded coating of solder was applied to strengthen the lines and create a finished look. This was how the distinctive “lead” lines were created on the leaded glass shades.
As the popularity of the shades grew, many designs were produced in mass. Once a basic design had been established, variation could be introduced with variety in the color palette and type of glass used, as well as variations in the base. Custom-made lighting was also available, though the process was more time-consuming, a fact that was reflected in the final price. Leaded glass shades could be “coned” or “doomed” the majority were finished on the bottom with sturdy brass rings at the top and bottom securing the stability of the shade. However “irregular” border shades, as seen in shades such as the “Dragonfly” or the famous “Wisteria” could also be created. These designs took careful planning and skill to secure the bottom edges of the lamp and maintain the structural integrity of the shade. As with irregular borders, the tops of the shades could also differ from the standard brass ring opening, employing such techniques as filigree and branching. Filigree, brass pieces with interior cut outs forming a design, could be applied to the interior or exterior of a glass shade to create a shadowed look that selectively blocked light from the bulb, as in the “Poppy” and “Dragonfly” shades.
Demand for Tiffany Studios Lamps reached its highpoint in 1906, and a Price List which catalogued the wares available through the Studio was published. The 1906 Price List is not complete, excluding not only models produced after 1906, but all ‘special order’ commissions. Each item available was given a model number and prices ranged from $30 for a small shade in a geometric design, to $750 for a shade with the most elaborate floral patterns. In total the 1906 Price List recorded 300 fuel lamps, 200 electric-lamp bases, and 200 hanging shades available. Lamp shades and bases were signed with model numbers. A dash after the model number, for example “351-1”, indicates a special request order, such as a client requesting a specific artistic effect or a different hue. As indicated by the vast number of models offered by Tiffany Studios, lamps came in a variety of combinations. Floor, table, library and desk lamp, as well as sconces, chandeliers, and lanterns were available with leaded glass shades, favrile glass, blown glass, and later mesh wire. Bases could be patented or gilt bronze in a variety of styles from “Tree Branch” to “Onion” base. Base decoration ranged from carving, inset mosaics or blown glass. The size and shape of the shade varied as well depending on its intended use. If a client was inclined, bases and shades could be mixed and matched to produce almost infinite variety.
By the time a second Price List was printed in 1913 there was a vast drop in variety of shades and bases produced. The new Price List contained a section of discontinued lines and the number of pieces still available in stock. The trend was away from the organic nature designs created in earlier decades to more geometric patterns reflecting historical decorating trends such as Chippendale and Old English. Production at Tiffany Studios slowed briefly during WWI as the operations were directed towards war supplies, however with peace, production quickly recovered.
A ledger book from the lamp department detailing the production of leaded lamp shades in the early 1920’s indicates that the Dragonfly shades were by far the most popular, followed by the Daffodil, Poppy, and Peony shades. By 1924 production of leaded glass shades had come to an end as Tiffany Furnaces was dissolved. Tiffany Studios continued to produce new lamps, under the direction of Leslie Nash. The new wire mesh or favrile glass shades were markedly more commercial than those produced earlier.
Louis C. Tiffany died in 1933, a year after then business manager of Tiffany Studios, Joseph Briggs, filed for bankruptcy. A Tiffany Studios album created that year still offered lamps for sale, including a sizable amount of leaded floral designs. A Tiffany retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Arts and Crafts in New York in 1958 included a Pond Lily and Wisteria lamp. The following year an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art also showcased a Wisteria lamp. In the following years Tiffany Studios objects became collectable, and lamps received increasing recognition leading to their covetable status today.
The “Tulip” Table Lamp:
An example of a Tiffany Studios Leaded Glass Nature theme lamp, the “Tulip” features a repeat pattern of tulips and stems in mottled red and green glass, intersected by two bands of orange glass along the lower half of the shade. The background ranges from an ochre brown depicting soil to a pale blue sky. The shade is 18” in diameter, the bottom of the shade is finished in a straight brass ring, the top culminates in a brass finial with cut outs to vent heat and light. The “Tyler” base on which it rests has a patinated bronze finish and lightly curves upwards towards the shade.
This Tiffany Studios desk lamp features a popular favrile glass “Damascene” shade in iridescent blue and green. The “Wave” design and shape of the glass was achieved during the glass blowing process. The shade appears differently when illuminated due to the iridescence of the glass. The “Counter Balance” base can be raised or lowered to direct the light making it ideal for placement on a working desk.