Tiffany Studios Designers
Under Louis Comfort Tiffany’s patriarchal leadership, teams of skilled designers and craftspeople helped transform his broad vision into beautiful objects that captivated an era. This fact of art production at Tiffany Studios has recently attracted enormous public interest thanks to one Tiffany manager and designer—a talented woman by the name of Clara Driscoll (1861–1944).
Driscoll, who led the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, may currently be the most famous of the designers at Tiffany Studios. The discovery of a trove of her letters was the basis for a major exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in 2007, A New Light on Tiffany—Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, and a best-selling work of historical fiction by Susan Vreeland in 2011, Clara and Mr. Tiffany.
Though long known and appreciated by scholars and collectors, it was a mesmerizing revelation to museum-goers and the media alike that Tiffany did not personally design every object created in his studios and that many of his artists were women. At a time when women rarely worked outside the home, it was common to see craftswomen working in a Tiffany studio. As empathetic and fascinating as Driscoll is, she was in fact just one of a number of notable women designers employed by Tiffany. Driscoll’s current notoriety provides a welcome opportunity to herald others such as Agnes Northrop, Alice Gouvy, and Julia Munson in their unique roles at Tiffany Studios.
Tiffany’s Work with Women
Tiffany’s employment of women was innovative enough that it warranted coverage in contemporary publications. In an 1894 article in The Art Interchange, “Women Workers in Glass at the Tiffany Studios,” writer Polly King notes the company’s “progressive spirit” in its “experiment of employing women.” Tiffany’s affiliations with women, however, and his obvious respect for their skills at a time when they were still denied the right to vote, was established much earlier.
In 1879, Tiffany formed a jointly-named company with textile designer Candace Wheeler, who two years earlier had founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York. Through Tiffany & Wheeler, and a later endeavor—the Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Associated Artists—they decorated some of New York City’s most significant houses and public buildings. Wheeler recruited Tiffany as an instructor at the Society where he taught a variety of subjects including pottery, served on the committee of design, and no doubt saw wonderful work by women artists who were being trained in the applied arts.
The Women’s Glass Cutting Department
Tiffany established the Women’s Glass Cutting Department in 1892, recruiting artists from the local Y.W.C.A., Cooper Union, and the School of Applied Design. This event in the company’s history, which for the first time allowed women to cut and select glass for windows and mosaics along with the men, may have been as much about business as art. The Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters’ Union, which only permitted men as members, had organized a city-wide strike that year to win higher wages and reduced hours.
Tiffany employed six women at his glasshouse in Corona, New York, in 1892. By 1894, the “experiment” proved to be so successful that he had 35 young women working in every aspect of glasswork. They ranged from the selectors who cut out glass and patterns to the highly skilled women that created cartoons and designs. By 1897, Tiffany had between 40 and 50 young women employed in his glass workshop, according to the writer Cecilia Waern in an article about the Tiffany company in the September 1897 issue of The International Studio.
Women Were Uniquely Suited to the Decorative Arts
King’s 1894 article in The Art Interchange notes that women’s fingers were especially suited for the task of copper foiling pieces of glass. She further states, no doubt quoting Tiffany or an upper-level manager on the advantages of women over men, that success in the field of decorative arts was mainly achieved by “natural decorative taste, keen perception of color, adaptability to the medium employed, and the power to learn from the work about and from the criticisms of the heads of the departments.” In her 1897 article for The International Studio, Waern writes that Tiffany at one point replaced striking union men with “young women from the art schools where they had at least learned to use their eyes and their fingers in certain ways.”
The women Tiffany hired were so successful that they soon progressed from simple, small windows to executing larger more important compositions. Driscoll’s department, for example, executed the Story of the Cross window for the 1893 chapel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the Four Seasons window for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, both of which were designed by Tiffany and are now in our collection.
Clearly, women fit into Tiffany’s scheme for creating and producing works of art in his studios. There, with Tiffany at the head, a hierarchy of workers and departments existed within the design process and an object’s execution. Beyond the glass selectors, there were designers, assistants, and a multitude of other artisans who completed work.
Clara Pierce Wolcott Driscoll
When Driscoll was named supervisor of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department in 1892, she was already considered an experienced designer. A native of Tallmadge, Ohio, she began working for Tiffany in 1888 and, with the exception of interruptions for two short marriages, remained there until 1909. Driscoll designed many lamps including the popular Dragonfly & Water lampshade that was awarded a medal at the 1900 Paris world’s fair. A very similar shade is on view in our collection as well as others she designed.
The discovery of Driscoll’s correspondence at the Queens Historical Society in New York and the Kelso House Museum Collection archived at Kent State University Library Special Collections in Ohio allows invaluable insight into her life, her perception of Tiffany Studios, and her contributions to the company’s production. Early on she assisted in the production of windows, but later she was more involved in management and business decisions in the lamps and fancy goods department. According to her letters, however, she craved a more artistic atmosphere. Her department had to remain commercially viable while others did not.
Still, Driscoll was a good manager. Her aptitude was for realizing a great profit from lamps and fancy goods. These items today are the most available on the market, but are not the artistic wares made in departments such as enamels and pottery—which Driscoll called “little Arcadia”— under other women designers. In her department, Driscoll was constrained by standardization, material costs, and profitability that allowed her only the occasional dalliance into purely artistic creation.
Nowhere in Tiffany’s company were standardization and bottom-line concerns more emphasized than in the making of lamps. Over time, the lamps became the primary domain for the women working under Driscoll. In 1903, for example, the men in the union threatened to strike if the women did not stop making windows. Driscoll wrote that “this does not mean we will be out of work because most of our business has come to be lamp shades and for some reason lamp shades are not included in leaded glass work so far as the Union goes.” The issue was resolved when the studio promised the union it would not hire any more women.
The Driscoll Letters
Despite the additional knowledge provided by Driscoll’s letters, there is some danger that they elevate her position at Tiffany Studios out of proportion to other managers and designers simply because these others did not leave such personal written records. The Driscoll letters are very long and mostly about day-to-day living rather than work at Tiffany Studios. Stories told in these letters reveal a remarkable character but shed less light on the many other key players, some of whom were far more influential women designers.
On the whole, Driscoll answered to the business managers who made sure the department remained profitable specifically to support Tiffany’s enterprise overall. Lamps and fancy goods were areas Tiffany did not particularly focus on, although she worked in his style, and he encouraged Driscoll to remain creative—often overruling the money managers on fancy lamps like the Cobweb in the Museum’s collection.
In a letter to her family, Driscoll lamented the fortune of other designers stating: “Their work is practically the private enterprise of a rich man, and they never consider anything but the question of beauty while I have to consider the cost of production at every step—beside being interrupted in my work by all manner of things relating to business rather than Art.”
Driscoll was right. The lamps and fancy goods were important profit producers while Tiffany at the same time regularly indulged his artistic desires. This, of course, accounts for the variety of production, innovation, and constant introduction of new materials at Tiffany Studios.
All production was advertised as being made “under the supervision of Mr. Louis C. Tiffany.” And it was. Still, Tiffany’s vision for producing objects of beauty required that he have the right artist in the right place. And, despite the Victorian sensibilities of the time, at Tiffany’s firm, the best man for the job was often a woman.