A Closer Look Into the World of Tiffany Studios Part 2
Again, please welcome Brittany Spencer-King as she shares with us her findings from her research on Tiffany desk sets. She recently completed her Master of Arts with a Concentration in the History of Decorative Arts at George Mason University. This is Part Two of a three part series. Part One can be read here.
From the Desk of Brittany Spencer-King
For the purpose of this essay, five of the twenty-three patterns created between 1899 and 1928 will be discussed. The patterns are significant to the history of Tiffany Studios’ desk sets because they reflect the wide variety of designs that Tiffany created.
One of the first standardized patterns produced was the Etched Metal and Glass pattern, (First photo) which uses grapevines and pine boughs as inspiration for its decoration. It is by far the most botanically accurate standardized desk set pattern made by the Tiffany Studios. Tiffany’s earlier decorative art designs were heavily based in nature. Therefore, it makes sense that the first standardized patterns would draw from this motif. Both the pine bough and the grapevines patterns have an extremely intricate cutout design.
In the case of the grapevines, the design is composed of leaves and bundles of grapes highlighted with green and white streaky glass. As for the pine bough, brown and white streaky glass is used to highlight the pattern of irregular lines shooting out from a central point. What sets the Etched Metal and Glass pattern apart from the earlier desk set is the use of flat glass pieces instead of mosaics. This use of flat glass would have reduced the labor spent on the pattern but given the same overall effect as the mosaic inlay s. This pattern illustrates the transition to more cost effective design methods because it uses flat glass that was easy to insert under the cutout bronze design.
Many of Tiffany Studios’ desk sets were also inspired by historical and foreign cultures, which Tiffany explored and studied during his trips to Europe, Africa and the Near East. Tiffany owned a large design library including books by writers from the period. He would encourage his designers to use his library for inspiration. Among his books were several volumes on European, Middle Eastern and Asian design, including Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (London, 1865), and Encylopédie artisitique et documentaire de la plante (n.d.). Fueled by the influx of revival styles during the Victorian era, Tiffany and his designers sought inspiration from historical sources and “exotic” cultures.
There were several desk set patterns that included historical references in their design. The Byzantine pattern (Second photo) is one example. A pamphlet published by firm describes the design one that “reproduce[s] in practical forms the ornament found on many old Byzantine metals.” This pattern is likely a natural outgrowth of Tiffany’s own love of Byzantine art, which he had studied during his Grand Tour of Europe at the age of 17. Siegfried Bing, Tiffany’s friend and dealer in Europe, later wrote about this love, stating,
“What impressed the young artist and filled his heart with a transport of emotion never felt before was the sight of the Byzantine basilicas, with their dazzling mosaics, wherein were synthesized all the essential laws and all the imaginable possibilities of the great art of decoration.” The rich circular ornamentation of the desk set reflects the elaborate gold objects skillfully produced by Byzantine craftsmen, as seen in this plaque from the tenth century (Third photo).
Here, the plaque’s wide border has been ornamented with filigree and precious stones. Tiffany’s pattern is reminiscent of this design, especially on the outside border, which consists of pale red glass jewels set at intervals with coral toned beading against a gold background.
The late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries were not only a time of revivals but also saw an enormous interest in the exotic and unknown, such as the American Indian pattern (Fourth photo). During the early twentieth century, the interest in Native American design and culture increased because it was seen as an escape from the “over civilized” urban environment of industrial America. As a result, there were many writers and artists trying to document Native American culture and their design style in order to translate it into contemporary design. The use of Native American objects in homes was a popular design theme, and they were often used in “Indian corners.” These “Indian corners” were found in homes all over the United States, Tiffany’s included. Tiffany, like many people of the day, was an avid collector of Native American decorative arts and artifacts and he made several collecting trips to the West. His fascination with Native American design is evident in the design elements in the pattern. The American Indian Tiffany Studios’ brochure states, “In choosing motifs for the decoration of the American Indian desk set, the Tiffany Studios have selected the serpent, the frog, the bird and the wind and rain symbolizing the seasons…The season motifs particularly are taken from the crudely modeled earthen dishes of the gulf tribes.”
The season motifs, or vertical, horizontal and crisscrossed lines, can be seen on the border of the stamp box. In Native American design they are found on baskets and textiles, such as this one from Navajo Tribe (Fifth photo), which were a popular collector’s item during the twentieth century. The stylized heads of frogs, birds, and snakes can be seen on the different sides of the desk set as well as this native bowl (Sixth photo) from Tiffany’s collection. There appears to be a connection between the face on this bowl and the faces of the bird and frog, perhaps suggesting that this bowl was used as a source of inspiration.
Around the end of the twentieth century’s first decade, stylistic tastes were beginning to change. Designs were becoming more subdued and modernistic, a drastic change from the elaborate designs manufactured at the beginning of the century. At least five additional desk set patterns were introduced in the 1920s under the name Louis C. Tiffany Furnaces, Inc, this new company and the firm continued to sell earlier desk set patterns as well. Most of these new patterns had relatively short production spans and appear to have been attempts at producing similar designs, complete with gold plating and enameling, like those from the earlier years. However, with an increased popularity in modernist designs, the later patterns proved unsuccessful in the marketplace.
The so-called “Art Deco” pattern (Seventh photo) was more strikingly colorful and well designed than the earlier attempts making it a relevant creating a more contemporary design. It is fairly simple and made up of repeating geometric patterns highlighted by monochrome enameling. Additionally, because of its minimalist design, it may have been more cost efficient to produce, perhaps in response to the recent economic downturn. Despite the attempt to remain competitive in this changing market, Tiffany’s products fell out of favor with the general public and desk set production ceased in 1924.
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