Celebrating Tiffany and his sense of opulent beauty


Anniversary: The world- famous artisan is the subject of a number of exhibitions 150 years after his birth and 106 years after his acclaimed display in Chicago

January 13, 1999|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- No fewer than 11 purveyors of stained glass exhibited their wares at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, but 10 of them could have saved themselves the bother of setting up on the South Side fairgrounds.

Seekers of beauty hurried to a chapel-like room that had been designed by a brilliant, shrewd artist as a showplace for his transcendently beautiful stained-glass windows and intricate mosaics. It was a fantasy chamber that combined Romanesque and Byzantine styles, and it was filled with the kind of decorative objects -- candlesticks, vases, bowls and so on -- that a rising middle class was eager to acquire.

By the end of the fair, the chapel's creator, Louis Comfort Tiffany, had won 54 awards for his display, which newspapers of the day said had been visited by more than 1 million people.

The international acclaim from the fair catapulted Tiffany from a comfortable position as a decorator and designer for wealthy East Coast clients to the status of a design star whose lamps, stained-glass windows, mosaics, vases, jewelry and countless other objects became highly prized trophies in the well-appointed parlors of the Gilded Age.

They remain highly prized -- and certainly high-priced. With their lush colors, intricate designs and reliance on natural forms, Tiffany's glass and lamps are ever-popular crowd-pleasers, as demonstrated by a number of current or forthcoming auctions and exhibits, organized around the 150th anniversary of the designer's birth. That includes the unveiling this year of the restored Columbian Exposition chapel, which survived decades of neglect and eventually was rescued from the burned ruins of Tiffany's Long Island estate.

A theme that emerges from these varied events is the strong and seemingly unlikely connection between the highly refined New Yorker and the town that H. L. Mencken called "the abattoir on the lake." Tiffany opened a Chicago branch of his New York firm in 1884, nine years before the fair, and over the decades created many memorable works in the city that brought him to international fame.

Tiffany, who was born in 1848, came by his sense of luxurious beauty naturally. He was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of the jewelry company, which was especially known for its fine silver work. The elder Tiffany wanted his son to follow him into the business, but Louis had other interests.

Shortly after the Civil War, he traveled to Europe and North Africa and took up painting. Some of these early works, which show an already receptive eye for color and a taste for the exotic styles of the Near and Far East, are included in a current exhibition of some 150 Tiffany works at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was as an interior decorator that Tiffany first made a name for himself. The combination of talent and connections -- his father's jewelry was already famous among the era's captains of industry and their consorts -- proved irresistible.

As a young man with only a few years' experience, he secured commissions from many wealthy clients, stuffing their mansions with Oriental rugs; carved woodwork from India; and Chinese and Japanese pottery, porcelain and metalwork. By the early 1880s, he had decorated the Hartford, Conn., home of Mark Twain and the White House for President Chester A. Arthur.

From designing interiors, he moved to designing objects, often using the opalescent glass that he had developed. He called his invention "favrile" glass, a more euphonious form of the Old English word "fabrile," meaning handwrought.

Tiffany's works have always been luxury items. In 1906, Tiffany Studios offered more than 125 styles of lamp shades, ranging in price from $30 to a princely $750.

Now, with Tiffany more popular than ever, prices for original pieces have leaped skyward. Tiffany stained-glass windows have sold for more than $1 million. Christie's, which recently held an all-Tiffany auction that included stained-glass windows and floor and table lamps, set a record last year when it knocked down a Tiffany lamp for $2.8 million, the most paid at auction for a piece of 20th-century decorative artwork.

"I don't know anybody who epitomizes a Renaissance man of the arts as he does, in that there was virtually no medium that he did not touch," says Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Metropolitan's curator of American decorative arts. "Decorative designs, lamps, jewelry, furniture, vases, glass, enamelware, desk sets, book design. ... He wanted to put his mark on every aspect of a building, and that's his true genius, I think."

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