When you see real Tiffany glass for the first time, every discount store or restaurant chain knock-off tiffany lamp becomes an insult.
"Look at the variety of color in the blossoms themselves," said Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of an exhibition on Tiffany glass at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while she showed off a classic wisteria lamp.
The exhibition features the glass that Louis Comfort Tiffany displayed at Laurelton Hall, his palatial, wisteria-draped Long Island country home.
"One visitor remarked that she felt it was almost impossible to distinguish where the real ones left off and the leaded glass ones began," Frelinghuysen told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner.
The wisteria is not only a signature design associated with Tiffany, it's a clue in a scholarly detective story. Margi Hofer, curator at the New York Historical Society, said that the wisteria lamp was actually designed by a woman named Clara Driscoll. The Historical Society has an exhibit about Driscoll and the Tiffany girls who worked for her.
"The idea that really a single woman was responsible for virtually all of the floral-themed, the nature themed shades, is really turning around Tiffany scholarship," Hofer said.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was born in 1848, the son of the founder of the famous jewelry store. He first made his name as an interior decorator to the rich and famous in the 1880s. He did the home of Mark Twain in Hartford, Conn.
"The glass selector would be responsible for finding just the perfect piece of glass to render whatever detail that they were trying to do, and then the glass cutter would use a glass cutter, to score around the template," Hofer said.
Driscoll made $35 a week, which was good money at the turn of the century, but today, the lamps we now know she designed would sell for as much as $750, a lot more than she could afford.
Experts Nina Gray and Martin Eidelberg are friendly rivals in Tiffany scholarship who independently discovered hundreds of the long, detailed letters Driscoll wrote to her family.
"I just blurted it out and said, 'You won't believe what I found — letters from Clara Driscoll,' and she replied, in this kind of deadpan voice, 'I already know them," Eidelberg said.
An old newspaper story made Eidelberg and Gray aware that Driscoll had designed a dragonfly lamp, which won a prize at the Paris World's Fair of 1900. From her letters, they found out that many other Tiffany classics were hers.
Artists may have worked for him, but Tiffany himself was quite a piece of work. He wore white suits, adored flowers, and built himself an exotic, 84-room, fairy tale of a country house on Long Island. Laurelton Hall was completed in 1905, on property spanning 600 acres.
But mostly Laurelton Hall was a showcase for the best of the best of Tiffany's work: The most beautiful of the stained glass windows and the most incredibly sophisticated of the vases.
Tiffany wanted Laurelton Hall to be his legacy — a sanctuary where artists could come and study. But once he died in 1933, the money began to run out and the house and most of its contents were sold. In 1957, Laurelton Hall burned down. Some items survived, and looking at them today, you can't help trying to imagine: What it would have been like, seeing them as Louis Comfort Tiffany wanted them be seen?
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