A cache of letters written by Clara Driscoll, head designer at New York’s Tiffany Studio at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, captures a story that still resonates for those navigating the often conflicting demands of work, life and creativity.
The story of historical women artists and designers is filled with examples of talented practitioners who have been overlooked, undervalued or just plain forgotten. But, occasionally, fate can deal them a kinder hand as information comes to light that rewrites those who were neglected back into art history.
One such fascinating story revolves around the career of Clara Driscoll (1861–1944), a leading designer at the famed Tiffany Studio in New York. It has long been presumed that Louis Comfort Tiffany himself was the main designer for a studio whose high-end decorative arts came to epitomise Art Nouveau taste in the United States. However, in the early 2000s, scholars Dr Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray and Margaret K. Hofer, discovered a cache of letters by Clara Driscoll to her family that revealed a different narrative.
In her correspondence Driscoll provides a unique insight into the day-to-day work of the Tiffany Studio, disclosing in the process that she was one of its key designers and responsible for around 30 lamps, including the evocatively named Wisteria, Dragonfly and Peony lamps now considered to be Tiffany’s masterworks. Along with her creative skills, Driscoll also managed the studio’s Women’s Glass Cutting department which, after its foundation in 1892, employed a team of up to fifty women who designed, selected and meticulously cut the glass for Tiffany’s various products.
The records of Tiffany’s Studio were destroyed after it closed in the early 1930s, so Driscoll’s letters are significant as the only first-person account of its operations. But more than this, their value lies in bringing back to light a great designer whose place in history was nearly lost.
In common with other decorative arts studios, Tiffany preferred that his creative team were generally not publicly acknowledged. It was only when a contemporary researcher spotted Driscoll’s name in a 1904 article on highly paid women in the New York Daily News, that her connection to the studio was made. Although the title of the article was ‘Women who make $10,000 a year or more’, Driscoll was actually paid $1820. This was a good, if by no means extravagant, wage that was equivalent to many of Tiffany’s top male designers. Driscoll was born in a small mid-western town in Ohio in the United States in 1861 and her career was almost over before it began. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her mother with four daughters to raise. Unusually for the time, her mother, Elizur V. Wolcott, believed passionately in women’s education and sent all her children to college. Driscoll moved to New York in 1888 and enrolled in the Metropolitan Museum Art School, which specialised in industrial design for ‘artist artisans’. Although women were well represented in the student rollcall, Driscoll was the only woman to study architectural decoration. By June of 1888 both Clara and her sister had begun work at Tiffany Studios.
Driscoll’s tenure with the company was proscribed by her marital status: at the end of the 1800s it was uncommon for women to work outside the home and, in keeping with social mores, the company required that women leave the company when they became engaged or married. As a result, after an initial stint at the studio, Driscoll left Tiffany’s to marry a fellow boarder at her rooming house. A few years later, her husband died and Driscoll returned to work, only to leave a second time when she was briefly engaged in 1896 to Edwin Waldo. Waldo mysteriously disappeared when the couple were on travels – reappearing six years later claiming he had suffered amnesia – but in the meantime Driscoll returned to her job at Tiffany’s. Her third tenure with the studio (which ended with her second marriage around 1908) was her most creative.
Driscoll was a sensitive and appreciative lover of nature who drew on the natural world in designs that met and extended Tiffany’s own inspired visions. Her choice of motifs was, in part, dictated along gender lines: for the production of the leaded lamps only women were allowed to work on floral designs while the male employees were assigned geometric designs. Lamp design and production dominated Tiffany Studio’s Women’s Glass Cutting department after 1897. Although the team worked to a series of established designs, essentially each lamp was unique and, in the early years especially, featured the famed coloured favrile, or iridescent art glass, that Tiffany invented, cut and arranged into superbly decorative patterns. It should be noted that while Driscoll was one of the main women designers at the Tiffany Studios, her female colleagues also contributed to the process, with the selector and cutter of glass key players in the eventual work. It appears that Tiffany himself rarely participated in the initial design process, however he maintained a close interest in what was produced and, as Driscoll notes in her letters, he would work with her on testing ideas around prototypes and visited her department several times a week to offer feedback as the works were in production.
The lamps came in two parts: a complex bronze armature of various forms and a glass shade. Driscoll’s correspondence details how she would draw up ideas for the glass shades then make a model in clay and finally in plaster, over which she would draw the design in pencil and then watercolour to approximate how the glass would eventually look. Once approved by Mr Tiffany, a prototype was modelled in wood, onto which the glass of various colours were cut and placed. The glass was fastened together at the factory with metal and was then, ‘drawn off a complete shade. It is then put in an electric bath and plated with copper (the metal) and then … it comes back here to be sold’.
The NGV’s recently acquired Wisteria, table lamp is a perfect example of the skill involved in its production. Made up of 2000 individually cut favrile glass pieces that form panicles in shades of lilac, ultramarine and pinkish white, the lamp shade is in the form of a canopy of blossoms in full bloom borne from a weeping plant-like armature that holds the pieces in place at the top of the lamp, and which concludes in a twisting wisteria vine, patinated bronze, that roots from the base. One feature of the lamp is the asymmetrical border of its ‘blooms’ which accentuates the fluid, organic form of the design. The naturalistic colours of the lamp varied across its production – sometimes bright colours of cobalt blue, ultramarine and amethyst were used (made even more luminous when the light was switched on) and sometimes the palette was more restrained and natural, as in the NGV’s version. The process of construction was a delicate one, and upsets did occur. Driscoll reports, for instance, that on one notable occasion when the women had pieces of glass for the Wisteria, table lamp wrapped in copper foil and placed on large easels against the guidelines of the cartoon that guided their work, a disaster occurred:
The scrub woman was cleaning the floor under the easel when she suddenly decided to get up. Of course she took the whole … easel with her and immediately the work of …. girls for six days was in about nine thousand pieces over the floor in an indistinguishable heap’.
The Wisteria, table lamp was a high end decorative arts object that would have cost its owners USD$400 in 1906, making it one of the Tiffany Studio’s most expensive productions. However, despite its cost, it was a popular work for the studio and, by 1905, 123 Wisteria lamps had been made, wearing out the templates and necessitating that they be remade. The attraction of the lamp then, as now, is clear: it’s wonderfully flowing lines and articulation of colour make it both an outstanding example of Art Nouveau and also show the impact that Japanese art was making on the Western decorative arts market.
Driscoll was sensitive to Mr Tiffany’s aesthetic and her own creative style evolved in response. In a letter in 1898 she revealingly notes that Tiffany’s home was filled with Japanese art
like a dream of poetry and harmony that might have come out of the East. It is somewhat oriental in effect but not in detail. As if Mr Tiffany had gone to the same great sources of inspiration but had evolved his own conception of their great principles. I told him that I felt that his work was in some ways suggestive of Eastern thought, which seemed to please him – and he said, ‘Yes I have always been influenced by the oriental idea of form and color’. He said he thought that I was gaining in my work and that I was thinking in the right direction’.
Wisteria, table lamp is a prime example of how sophisticated Driscoll was in her absorption of the Japonisme style, showing her profound appreciation of Japanese aesthetics and design philosophy rather than being a slavish copying of forms. In many ways, Clara Driscoll was the epitome of the so-called ‘modern woman’ at the turn of the century, an artist-designer who established a strong independent career for herself in the commercial art world through her design and managerial talents. She fought hard for her team of women workers and successfully battled efforts by the union (which did not admit female members) to have them disbanded. Wisteria, table lamp, is not only her great masterwork but is now considered the most outstanding work of the Tiffany Studio and an icon of American modern design. And yet, Driscoll’s contribution could so easily have been lost to history. That it ultimately was reinstated, is a tribute to the detective work of researchers who pieced together this important design story.
This was originally commissioned for and published in the Jul-Aug 2018 issue of NGV Magazine.
Dr Isobel Crombie was NGV Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management. All quotes are taken from Marin Eidelberg, Nina Grey and Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and The Tiffany Girls, New York Historical Society, New York, 2007.