Tiffany Studio’s stained glass lamps are among the most gorgeous decorative objects ever created and represent an incredible historical moment of American art joining the world stage. While numerous countries are filled with beautiful painting, sculpture and architecture, American stained glass of the late-19th and early-20th century outshines the competition. Tiffany lamps not only embody America coming into its own artistically, their innovative opalescent glass and usage of incandescent bulbs also illuminate America as a beacon of technological collaboration and innovation.
From his earliest days as a telegrapher working for Western Union in Boston, Thomas Edison was a tinkerer. However, it was right here in New York and New Jersey that Thomas Edison made history with inventions including the stock ticker, the phonograph, and—of course—the incandescent bulb. Edison’s inventions were capital-intensive, and required funding from businessmen, politicians and other powerful individuals based in New York. While Edison did not invent the first light bulb, by 1879 he created the first practical, long-lasting light bulb and patented a system of electricity distribution. Without Edison’s innovations, electric lighting would not be suitable for interiors and Tiffany’s artistry would have been limited to interior design, stained glass windows, and oil lamps.
In 1884, Edison worked with theatrical innovator Steele MacKay to design the lighting for the Lyceum Theater at Broadway and 22nd Street. Louis Comfort Tiffany was also brought on board to design the interiors. Tiffany was designing stained glass windows at the time, but had not yet begun to design stained glass lamps or lighting fixtures. Working alongside the electrical “wizard,” Tiffany could have looked at those bare, exposed light bulbs and seen potential.
Unlike Edison’s enduring electricity, Tiffany’s art nouveau and aesthetic style fell out of fashion for a time in the twentieth century. Tiffany is once again adored, with reproduction lamps in homes everywhere, original lamps fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, and museums with extensive collections (including our own, which was established with a major donation by collector Egon Neustadt). Scholarship has also caught up to recognize a crucial part of Tiffany’s genius: he employed talented artistic collaborators. One designer in particular, Clara Driscoll, is believed to have led a team of women in designing the majority of the 132 lamps in our collection. Visitors will have the opportunity to examine the beauty and historical significance of these lamps as never before when the Luce Center reopens following renovation in 2016. Until then, we hope you’ll explore them online and in our publication A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.