In The Shadow of Tiffany
The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – January 2007
Louis Tiffany and Tiffany Studios
In the realm of American decorative arts, few names are as revered as that of the Tiffany Studios. It was Louis Tiffany, after all, who almost singlehandedly dispelled the image among Europeans of our young country as a backwater of cultural bumpkins. When his famous Favrile glassware was first exhibited in Europe in the late 1890s, it so amazed the art world there that our haughty ancestors finally had to concede that the “colonies” were becoming a civilized place to live. Accolades and awards poured in and his Studio’s revolutionary forms and surface effects were widely imitated by the continent’s foremost glass houses. Tiffany had put America on the artistic road map.
Tiffany’s leaded lamps never received the critical attention given to his blown glass or window work and, in fact, modern historians have tended to dismiss them as little more than a commercial adjunct to his legitimate art products. Regardless, the American public enthusiastically endorsed these impressive novelties when they were introduced shortly before the turn of the last century. Although far too expensive for most purses, New York’s carriage trade were eager customers for Tiffany’s lighting products, which at that time were almost all designed for kerosene use. Buyers of both the lamps and Favrile seemed convinced that Tiffany’s fame added artistic legitimacy to their own home decors. This time period happened to coincide with the onset of electric lighting and the opalescent glass used in Tiffany’s shades was found to be a near perfect modulator for the intense light of the electric light bulb. During the first years of the last century, Tiffany added a whole range of electric portables to his line and his customers were again insistent on having their first electric lighting come from none other than Tiffany Studios. As soon became apparent, Tiffany had launched a style that would remain in fashion for more than two decades, eventually becoming cherished as an icon of our earliest electric lighting.
The status accorded to Tiffany’s lamps during his career has certainly withstood the test of time. After the obligatory decades of “retirement,” Tiffany’s oeuvre experienced a renaissance, beginning in the early 1960s and growing ever stronger up through the present day. Today, Tiffany’s lamps receive even more attention than his Favrile glass or windows, certainly because of their intrinsic quality, but also because of their utility in the modern home and the large quantities that have survived. The demand for Tiffany’s best lamps has led to astronomical numbers at the New York auction houses and fostered a market that now rivals those for Impressionist paintings and Period French furniture.
This author has been privileged to serve these collectors of Tiffany’s lamps for over thirty years now, in my capacity as restorer and expert. Over this period, I have been able to get “up close and personal” with over a thousand Tiffany lamps and I never cease to be amazed at the creativity and variety of his output. From time to time through the years, collectors have also presented me with other leaded lamps, obviously not made by Tiffany, but also obviously beautiful and of exceptional quality. A few have been signed with the maker’s name, but far more were unsigned, leading to endless discussions, speculations and even the occasional argument. In many instances, the owners had convinced themselves that the piece must be “unsigned Tiffany” or even “early Tiffany.” Based on my knowledge of Tiffany’s style, this attribution seemed unwarranted, but with no good evidence to contradict them, who could say for sure they were wrong. It occurred to me that there was a glaring need for information on the other makers apart from Tiffany and somebody ought to write a book on it. Thus began my ten-year odyssey to rediscover these forgotten artisans. Here is an overview of what I found.
Tiffany was fortunate in that, during the first four years his mosaic shades were on the market, he was protected by a patent on the assembly method that made them so lightweight. When the Bray copper-foil patent expired in late 1903 however, the floodgates of competition were opened. It didn’t take long before a gaggle of competitors rose up to take advantage of the hot new market that Tiffany had created. Many of these opportunists came and went with little notice, but more than a few survived long enough to become substantial enterprises with solid reputations in their own right. Principal among them were several firms that already had experience with the type of glass that was at the heart of Tiffany’s copper-foiled shades. Bent glass shades, which had come onto the scene in the mid-1890s, relied on the same opalescent sheet glass, so it was easy for their manufacturers to expand into the production of mosaic shades. In fact, bent glass producers such as the Unique Art Glass & Metal Co., J. A. Whaley Co. and the Bent Glass Novelty Co. were among the first to take up the making of leaded shades after Tiffany. Being practical businessmen, they harbored no illusions about going head-to-head with him and wisely chose to tailor their output to the broader upper middle class market that they already served. This necessitated the creation of hundreds of new, less complex shade models and these seminal designs became a benchmark for all of the popularly priced copper-foiled shades that followed.
Stained glass studios formed a second core group of competitors. Like the bent glass companies, they were already working is a related field and some saw lamp shade manufacture as a way to escape the cut-throat competition that had begun to plague the stained glass window industry. Studio owners like John Morgan, Oliver Kimberly, Walter Schuler and Max Suess fall into this category. Many more studios, however, took up shade manufacture only as a sideline that provided work when their window business was slow. This part-time production was apparently very common in the industry at the time, but records are spotty and we will probably never know the extent of their contribution. This is unfortunate since, as experienced designers and fabricators, more than a few would have been capable of producing the highly artistic and well-crafted pieces that command top dollar with collectors today.
A third group is made up of established lighting manufacturers, many of whom were simply jumping on the bandwagon of a hot new trend. The Handel Co. in Meriden, R. Williamson in Chicago and the Albert Sechrist Co. in Denver are significant names in this category. The market for leaded glass shades really didn’t reach the middle class until around 1907, when the electric portable began to replace the fancy kerosene lamps that had dominated the market for the previous decade. It was at this point that many of America’s mainstream lighting companies also entered the picture. Bradley & Hubbard, Edward Miller, Charles Parker, Pittsburgh Lamp and Phoenix Glass all are known to have added a selection of mosaic portables to their lines around this time. This mainstream involvement was relatively short-lived however, because in 1908 the economy went sour and most of the large lighting companies abandoned their leaded shade lines in favor of the less costly metal overlay style.
All of the manufacturers were well aware that they were entering a market that was already owned by Tiffany. Some of them did test the upscale waters by putting out a selection of fancy models, but for the most part they concentrated on simpler designs that would appeal to the mass of consumers who could not afford a real Tiffany lamp. The implicit comparison with Tiffany certainly put a damper on any notions of artistic merit that they might have had and most were content to turn out an attractive product at a reasonable price. In practice, this meant making shades composed of fewer pieces of glass and pairing them with less complicated bases, often formed out of sheet brass or cast in white metal instead of brass. These requirements placed definite limits on what could be achieved and most manufacturers saw little reason to sign their finished products. (Exceptions to this were Handel, Bigelow, Kennard, Gorham and Wilkinson.)
One enterprise that defied this consensus was the Duffner & Kimberly Co., who started their business with the express intent of competing with Tiffany in the upscale market. The company was formed in late 1905 with a substantial capital investment and within months was able to bring to market an impressive line of leaded portables and fixtures. Duffner & Kimberly tried to carve a separate niche for themselves by concentrating on high period styles, a genre that Tiffany had largely neglected. The company began operations with great ambitions and an impressive array of lamps, but their timing proved unfortunate. Almost from the beginning, they were beset by financial difficulties and never able to expand their top-of-the-line offerings much beyond their initial line. Nevertheless, Duffner & Kimberly left us with an impressive legacy, the depth and scope of which we are only just beginning to appreciate. Their best lamps reflect a high level of craftsmanship and a sophisticated eye for design that certainly merits comparison with anything Tiffany was capable of producing. On the other hand, some of their simpler lamps exhibit a remarkable creative flair. and it is apparent that they explored the possibilities of the medium to a greater extent than Tiffany ever attempted.
All of Tiffany’s followers were greatly affected by the economic climate in which they operated. Whereas the important formative period of Tiffany’s leaded shade production occurred during a period of lavish consumer spending, his pretenders were faced with a declining market almost from the beginning. Reduced expectations and cost cutting measures soon became the order of the day.
Nevertheless, taken as a whole this diverse group was able to turn out an astounding body of handsome work despite the economy and, precisely because they were so diverse, able to extend the scope of leaded glass design far beyond the narrow range that Tiffany had defined. One can only speculate on what surprises they might have come up with and how differently they might be viewed today had they had more of an opportunity to make their mark.
As it was, they operated almost entirely in the shadow of Tiffany and little attention was paid to them. Even when the demand for their products was at its height, the trade journals virtually ignored their goings-on and their work was seldom seen on display under their own name. The lack of recognition then has inevitably translated into a lack of awareness today. Collectors of Tiffany lamps have had little or no access to information about the environment in which he operated and this has led to many misunderstandings. For example, there is an all too common presumption that, if a lamp is complex and of high quality, then it must have been produced by Tiffany Studios. In this writer’s experience, all manner of quality lighting, especially if it is in the art nouveau or Moorish style, has been wishfully attributed to Tiffany. Few collectors are aware that there were a number of bronze lighting manufacturers capable of executing work every bit as good as Tiffany. Names like Gaumier, Enos, Willy Lau, Braun and Moreau are virtually unknown in the trade today and still await their rediscovery.
Wishful thinking is further encouraged by the fact that a small but significant part of what was produced during Tiffany’s time was actually intended to be mistaken for his products. A prime example of this deception is Riviere Studios, many of whose well-known overlay desk pieces are nearly identical to like models by Tiffany. Other examples in the area of leaded shades can be found in the work of Unique and Bigelow, Kennard, both of whom made very close approximations of some Tiffany designs. Less perfect look-alikes abound throughout the repertoire of most high quality leaded shade makers. Informed collectors should be as able to identify what is definitely NOT Tiffany as readily as they determine what definitely is. The only way to do this is to learn about the other makers of leaded lamps and become knowledgeable about what they made and the way they put it together. Until that point is reached, avoidable mistakes will continue to be made and the field of Tiffany lamp collecting will continue to be pestered by a tinge of uncertainty.
About the Author
Paul Crist has finally published his first opus on leaded glass lamps, which he has titled [amazon_link id=”0979003717″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Mosaic Shades II[/amazon_link]. Paul is the head of Paul Crist Studios and, with over 30 years’ experience, has become a well-respected restorer and expert in the field of Tiffany lamps. After spending more than 10 years researching and photographing America’s leaded glass lamps, he has added his knowledge and insight to assemble a landmark volume that looks beyond Tiffany Studios to give our lesser-known makers the respect and admiration they deserve.
Stunning in its depth and detail, the book contains over 650 color illustrations of lamps, many of which are rarely seen today. These photos include hundreds of large images of portables and hanging lamps that are both breathtaking in their beauty and amazing in their creativity. The book also features detailed historical information on the major New York companies, backed up by more than 700 additional archival and stylistic illustrations—almost 1400 pictures in all!
If you want to gain a real appreciation of America’s rich heritage of leaded glass lamps, this book is the one you’ve been waiting for. It is sure to become a must-have reference source for all leaded glass lamp collectors and historians.
Additional information on [amazon_link id=”0979003717″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Mosaic Shades II[/amazon_link] is available at Paul’s website www.mosaicshades.com. Please call 562-696-9992 to place your order.