While Louis Comfort Tiffany had been producing light fixtures as early as the 1880s, the "Tiffany Lamp" as we know it today - incorporating a hand-cut leaded glass shade depicting a scene in rich detail - was not conceptualized until the late 1890s, when inspiration would strike in the Women's Glass Cutting Department where a team of talented young women both designed and cut glass by hand for Tiffany Windows and Favrile Glass mosaics.
Louis Comfort Tiffany first designed lighting fixtures utilizing glass in the mid-1880s when he was commissioned to design the interior of the Lyceum Theater in New York City, for which he collaborated with Thomas Alva Edison to produce a spectacular massive chandelier with opalescent blown glass shades in addition to a series of wall sconces - all powered by electricity, a rarity at the time.
Tiffany continued to design light fixtures incorporating blown and pressed glass throughout the late 1880s and into the 1890s, typically for specific interior design commissions, including the lantern pictured at left, previously sold by Lillian Nassau LLC.
Notable examples of early Tiffany light fixtures include multiple elaborate chandeliers for the interior of the mansion designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for New York sugar magnate Henry O. Havemeyer in 1892, including an example modeled after the flowering Queen Anne's Lace. Perhaps the most famous early Tiffany light fixture is a monumental ceiling fixture incorporating green glass which was a centerpiece in the award-winning Chapel in Tiffany's display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
One of the very first leaded glass shades produced under the Tiffany name was designed in early 1899 by Clara Driscoll, head of the Women's Glass Cutting Department.
In letters written by Driscoll to her family members, held by the collections of both the Queens Historical Society and the Kent State University Library, she described the process of designing this innovative object.
“This Dragonfly lamp is an idea that I had last summer and which Alice [Gouvy] worked out on a plaster mould. . . After she had made the drawing on this plaster mould I took it in hand and we worked and worked on it till the cost built up at such a rate that they had to mark it $250.00 when it was finished and everybody, even Mr. Belknap, thought it was impractical on account of the cost, but. . . then Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Belknap said—It is very original and makes talk, so perhaps it is not a bad investment. Then Mr. Tiffany got wind and came down and said it was the most interesting lamp in the place and then a rich woman bought it and then Mr. Tiffany said she couldn’t have it, he wanted it to go to London and have another one made for her and one to go to Paris.”
– Clara Driscoll, head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios (April 6, 1899)
Driscoll's letters indicate that five Dragonfly Lamps were produced that spring. One example, featuring a Favrile Glass Mosaic and Bronze base, was exhibited in Louis Comfort Tiffany's famous display at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where Driscoll and Tiffany won a Bronze Medal for the design (one of the few instances in which Driscoll was directly credited for her work).
A second example, pairing the Dragonfly shade with a blown Favrile Glass base, was shown in a special exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries in London from May through July of 1899. The exhibition, which showcased a selection of new and innovative designs, was organized by Siegfried Bing, Tiffany's European sales representative and the owner of the legendary gallery Maison de l'Art Nouveau in Paris.
The example seen here is the lamp which was exhibited and sold at the Grafton Galleries. The shade depicts six bright winged dragonflies hovering above variegated blue water interspersed with water plants and pink flowers, and rests on an oil lamp base formed by a globe of striated blue acid-etched Favrile Glass supported by a foot of cast bronze lily pads with finely chased detailing.
The Grafton Galleries' Dragonfly lamp was acquired by a collector in London directly from Bing's exhibition, and was held in that private collection until it was purchased at an auction in England by Lillian Nassau in 1970. Mrs. Nassau re-fit the lamp for electricity and sold it to a private collector in New York in 1971. In 2011, Arlie Sulka purchased the lamp back from the estate and it was later acquired by the Corning Museum of Glass, where it remains on display as a cornerstone of their collection relating to Louis Comfort Tiffany, Tiffany Studios, and the Tiffany Girls.
In 1902, after establishing Tiffany Studios, the production of leaded glass and blown glass lamps reached a new zenith.
Tiffany began to produce a vast number of Table Lamps, Floor Lamps, and Hanging Lamps ranging in price to appeal to a wide variety of clientele; generally, lamp shades and bases could be mixed and matched in order to appeal to a particular taste, style or price point. In the early years of production, Tiffany Studios lamps could be powered by oil, gas, or electricity, as noted in the advertisement placed in a 1904 edition of Scribner's Magazine. The company also continued to produce bespoke light fixtures for private and public commissions, including churches, libraries, government buildings, and domestic interiors.
Around the turn of the century, Tiffany Studios debuted an iconic lamp that could only be powered by electricity: the Lily Lamp, which was exhibited at the 1902 Turin Exposition. The thin stems of the Lily Lamp ingeniously disguised the wires needed to power the small lightbulbs concealed by the Favrile Glass Lily Shades; even the light switch to turn the lamp on and off was disguised as a small lily pad nestled amongst the sculptural bronze lily pads and buds which make up the lamp base.
Tastes and styles quickly evolved in the early 20th century, and Tiffany Studios continued to adapt their product line to keep up with the latest trends. The company discontinued many of their more elaborate leaded glass shade models around 1910, and pivoted to focus on designs that could more easily blend with the budding Art Deco and Modern movements. Simpler bronze bases, geometric shades, and smaller desk lamps designed to pair with a particular Desk Set became more common. Around 1913, the company also began to produce FavrileFabrique or "Linenfold" Lamps, using ingenious panels of pressed translucent glass to mimic draped silk.