Friday, May 30, 2008

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Scientist or Artist?

Already born into a family who had established a jewelry business, New Yorker Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) started his career as a rather mediocre oil painter. He fared considerably better in the interior design field, designing homes for well-known businessmen such as Samuel Langhorn Clemens (Mark Twain), and then refurbishing the White House for President Chester Arthur in 1881 when the latter assumed the Presidency.

Tiffany's interest in glass began with experiments with molten glass in 1872, as he became more interested in creating artful glass to beautify the interiors that he was designing. The manufacture of glass at that time remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, and Tiffany found the product lacking in the qualities he needed to create his artistic designs. "I then perceived that the glass used for claret bottles and preserve jars was richer, finer, had a more beautiful quality in color vibrations than any glass I could buy. So I set to puzzling out this curious matter. I took up chemistry and built furnaces," he later wrote.

By 1880, he had developed a method of producing a metallic luster to glass. "The metallic luster is produced by forming a film of a metal or its oxide, or a compound of a metal, on or in the glass, either by exposing it to vapors or gases or by direct application," in Tiffany's own words. He patented this process the following year. By thus modifying glass internally, Tiffany was able to produce a number of 3-D effects, such as drapery folds, waves, and undulations. He also combined layers of glass in order to achieve greater spatial and color depth. The process is known as plating, and it hadn't been previously used for decorative purposes. Integration of the lead between the glass pieces into the design was another new method that Tiffany introduced which enhanced the beauty of his designs.

For a number of years, his studio was located on the top floor of the family's house, designed by Stanford White and built in 1885, on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue (pictured). The studio received its lighting from the massive window underneath the gable at the right. The studios were relocated to Corona, NY in 1893.

Source for text and photo:

Warmus, William. The Essential Louis Comfort Tiffany. New York: The Wonderland Press, 2001.

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