Louis Tiffany's magic: transmuting humble silica into luminescent art

The Lamps of Tiffany Studios, by William Feldstein Jr. and Alastair Duncan. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 178 pp. $120. They mimic the delicacy of nature with stylized knotty roots, webbed leaves, bulbous pods. They amplify the color of sunlight through dragonfly wings and peony petals. The lamps of Tiffany Studios, breathtaking relics of the American art nouveau period, have been assembled for collector and connoisseur in this volume by William Feldstein and Alastair Duncan. Duncan is senior vice-president of Christie's auction house, where a Tiffany Studio spider-web lamp recently fetched $360,000 - a record price for any art nouveau object.

It is hard to imagine creations so delicate and luminous beginning with the earthiest of elements - silica sand, limestone, borax, and soda ash. These dull minerals are combined with metallic oxides: chrome for greens, copper or cobalt for blues, selenium or gold salts for yellows and reds. Exposed to extreme temperatures, the elements combine as molten glass. When cooled, the planes of rigid color contain strong internal stresses, obey the laws of hydraulics, and behave unpredictably under the glass cutter.

But when Louis Comfort Tiffany and his associates confronted the glass, their tools became magic wands and their scored sheets were tapped into perfect panes of leaf, dewdrop, and petal. At their disposal were over 5,000 colors of stained glass from the Tiffany furnaces on Long Island. They assembled the glass using the copper-foil method that Tiffany perfected, in which the tiny panes are edged with copper, then united with tin solder.

As more pieces are added, the suspended mosaic of tracery and jewel-like glass grows into lampshades - luminous umbrellas of great drooping lotus blossoms, and concentric circles of creamy pond lilies on an azure glass pond. These lamps were illuminated by the newly accessible electric light bulb, some of which Tiffany crafted to contain the glowing filament while uncannily resembling an unopened blossom. The lamp bases themselves were marvels of craftsmanship, with their tree-form trunks raising bronze branches to support the elaborate shades. Some lamp bases were paved with glass mosaic, echoing the botanical theme of the shade.

Between 1890 and 1933, Tiffany Studios sold hundreds of these spectacular lamps in the $100-to-$400 price range, which put them at the level of today's purchase of a good home computer. As they have emerged from dusty attics and private collections to be photographed for this handsome volume, we are reminded that Tiffany art nouveau is more than a style; it is a standard of excellence.

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