Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) dedicated his life to the quest for beauty, to bring together nature and exoticism. Here was an individual who was blessed by being born into a New York family of means, which became regarded as the most influential jewellers and silversmiths of the eastern seaboard.
The young Louis soon showed a talent for painting and, despite expectations to join the family-run Tiffany & Co, he was determined to pursue a career as an artist. He travelled extensively around Europe and North Africa where he soaked up the sights of exotic art and architecture.
Without abandoning painting, he turned his hand to decorative arts and interior design, before eventually establishing Louis C Tiffany and Associates in 1879. It traded as an all-encompassing interior design company, indisputably benefiting from Tiffany family connections that helped bring in clients with suitably deep pockets (such as Mark Twain and President Arthur, for whom Tiffany decorated rooms at the White House). An unconventional use of glass featured in his earliest designs, such as the abstract, leaded-glass window he created for a project at the Bella Apartments in New York.
The year 1879 was another turning point for Tiffany. Thomas Edison's invention – the carbon filament incandescent light bulb – meant that there was new potential to experiment with light and glass. But it was not until 1894 that Tiffany established his own glass-making factory in Corona on Long Island – before then he had purchased glass from other commercial glassworks. The company was now able to produce its own coloured glass for domestic and ecclesiastical leaded glass windows.
The earliest lampshades appeared in 1895 under the guidance of the skilled British glass-worker, Arthur Nash. These experiments led to a method whereby different colours were blended together in a molten state, achieving subtle shades and textures. Tiffany named his glass Favrile, a name that stood for hand-made quality. The glass was well received with orders growing in proportion to the sales of Edison's light bulbs.
The demand for leaded-glass lampshades eventually led to a near assembly line method of production at the Corona glassworks. By 1910 no self-respecting middle and upper-class American home was complete without its Tiffany table or standard lamp. International accolades poured in as early as 1900. The Dragonfly lamp, designed by Mrs Clara Driscoll, was fêted by an award at the Paris Exposition that year.
The 1902 Turin International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts reinforced the universal appeal of leaded glass. The much-celebrated Wisteria lamp, designed by Mrs Curtis Freschel, and shown at Turin, can be found in the Decorative Arts sale at Bonhams New York in June alongside the Trumpet Creeper and Begonia lamps.
Louis Tiffany died in 1933, by which time popular taste had turned away from the smooth lines of American Art Nouveau and towards Cubism and the geometric designs of Art Deco. Today, the Tiffany lamp has again secured its status as the ultimate expression of his era. It is pleasing to think that Tiffany's quest for his artistic ideals had not been in vain.
Eric Knowles is a world expert on 20th century design. He is the author of Lalique (Shire Publications), £14.99