By Jayme Yahr, Ph.D. and Houghton Kinsman
Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection is on view June 6 – September 12, 2021. The exhibition features more than 60 objects, spanning 30-plus years of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s (1848–1933) prolific career. One of America’s most renowned and inventive artists, he worked in glass, ceramic, metalwork, jewelry, and painting. This exhibition revels in Tiffany’s artistry and craftsmanship through masterworks from Chicago’s distinguished Richard H. Driehaus Collection, the objects never having been presented in a comprehensive exhibition.
The exhibition was organized by the Richard H. Driehaus Museum and is toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.
Houghton Kinsman (HK): Hi Jayme, how are you? It’s wonderful to sit down and chat about the upcoming Tiffany exhibition. It feels like ages ago that we sat in your office, crouched over your 3D model of the gallery space, and contemplated panel discussions, film series, and tours to accompany what promised to be a blockbuster of 2020! The great news is that a year later we have the chance to talk about Tiffany again and to look forward to the exhibition’s opening in early June of 2021. Let’s begin with the exhibition’s origins. The exhibition was organized by the Driehaus Museum and is toured by International Arts & Artists (IA&A), Washington, D.C. How did it end up on the Crocker’s slate of exhibitions?
Jayme Yahr (JY): Hi Houghton, great to chat with you about all things Tiffany and to be thinking about the exhibition again. What a year! I still have the exhibition model and now I’m thinking about exhibition details like wall color and text placement. To answer your first question, the exhibition was decided upon before I joined the staff of the museum, as the Crocker plans its exhibition schedule roughly four years in advance. When I came on board about two years ago, I took on managing the exhibition and put my own spin on conceptualizing our version of the show. The exhibition provides a deep dive into the Driehaus’ Louis Comfort Tiffany holdings and is an opportunity for audiences to see the diversity of styles and objects that Tiffany’s designers and companies created. The Crocker also has an interesting permanent collection of glass, including works by Deborah Moore, Dale Chihuly, Preston Singletary, and Émile Gallé, among many others. The exhibition is a good fit for us, and many visitors will likely remember seeing the Crocker’s Tiffany vases in our permanent collection galleries.
HK: Are there any words that come to mind immediately that best capture Louis Comfort Tiffany, his work and/or this exhibition?
JY: Branding, businesses, nature, glass, New York, networks, collecting . . .
HK: Before we delve deeper into some of these keywords, could you tell us a little more about the Driehaus and its Tiffany holdings? What makes this collection intriguing?
JY: Richard H. Driehaus started collecting decorative arts in the 1970s at about the same time that he started his own investment advisory firm in Chicago, his hometown. Over the years, he added numerous Tiffany objects to his collection, including everything from lamps and vases to chairs and windows. It’s hard to beat seeing Tiffany windows up close, and I appreciate the variety of window styles and types of objects in the Driehaus collection. What I find especially interesting about the collection is its home location. The collection is housed in the Nickerson mansion, a Victorian house completed in 1883, which Richard H. Driehaus restored between 2003 and 2008. Stepping into the museum in Chicago is truly like stepping into Tiffany’s Gilded Age.
HK: Do you know how long this exhibition has been “on the road?”
JY: A couple of years and the Crocker is the exhibition’s next to last stop. We had to delay the show by a year because of the pandemic. The Crocker’s display of the exhibition is a great opportunity for West Coast audiences to see parts of the Driehaus collection before the works return to Chicago in early 2022.
HK: How different will the Crocker’s presentation be in comparison to previous venues?
JY: I’m incorporating a broader view of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s business endeavors, including his European rivals and connection to Tiffany & Co., into the exhibition. I find that Tiffany’s role as a business owner, his successes and failures, should not be separated from his artistic output. The exhibition will also include information about his social network and the women designers who were essential to Tiffany’s success, including Clara Driscoll, Alice Gouvy, and Agnes Northrop.
HK: Without giving too much away about Clara Driscoll, Alice Gouvy, and Agnes Northrop, can you give us a teaser about how the exhibition explores their contributions to Tiffany’s work?
JY: Both the objects and thematic text will point to the contributions of Tiffany’s designers, including Driscoll, Gouvy, and Northrop. I hope that visitors interested in the history of Tiffany’s companies and designers will find this aspect of the exhibition to be a good starting point for reading and learning more. I also have plans for a large “map” of Tiffany’s designers, colleagues, and expanded social network. Tiffany did not work alone. I want to highlight his team and supporters, and investigate the staying power of his unique objects, from windows and lamps to fire screens and desk sets.
HK: Do you have any plans to include the Crocker’s Tiffany pieces in the exhibition? I’ve heard a rumor that a few Tiffany brooches that belonged to the Crocker family may make an appearance. Are you allowed to confirm or deny this rumor?
JY: It’s not often that I have the chance to officially confirm or deny a rumor, so this is a great question. Yes, the rumor is true. Two of Jennie Crocker Fassett’s Tiffany & Co. brooches will be on display inside the exhibition. They typically reside in our Crocker Family Galleries in the historic wing of the museum, but they’ll be moving into the Tiffany exhibition this summer. We’ll also have a Tiffany & Co. silver service in the exhibition. I’m excited about the additions!
He thought about all the details of a space when designing, from the windows and furniture to textiles and lighting. In Tiffany’s time, a lamp would never exist in isolation.
HK: Marvelous! Can you talk us through your thinking behind the decision to include the Tiffany & Co. brooches?
JY: I often get questions from interested visitors about how Louis Comfort Tiffany’s artistic output and Tiffany & Co. overlap, and whether or not Louis Comfort Tiffany was the founder of Tiffany & Co. I want to explore what I call the “Tiffany versus Tiffany” problem. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, founded Tiffany & Co. as a luxury goods store in 1837. It wasn’t until 1902, upon the death of his father, that Louis assumed the role of design director for Tiffany & Co. and established the Tiffany Artistic Jewelry department within the company. By 1902 Louis was a successful artist/designer in his own right and his success in the medium of glass inspired his work for his father’s brand. My goal is for the exhibition to visually depict Louis Comfort Tiffany’s artistic endeavors and various professional roles, and to show how the artist and his father’s company are intertwined. During the planning process I also asked the question: why a Tiffany exhibition at the Crocker? Beyond the vases that the museum owns, there is a clear connection to the American Gilded Age and the Crocker’s strong collection of artwork from the period. Creating a new environment for Jennie Crocker Fassett’s brooches also provides an opportunity to think about the objects differently and to link the Crocker family with Tiffany & Co.
HK: Speaking of Tiffany and Co. and the Tiffany family, it is interesting to note that they are connected to a number of high-profile design projects including the Great Seal of the United States, the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy, and early designs for the New York Yankees logo. Are you a baseball fan, or better yet, a Yankees fan?
JY: Isn’t it interesting how much the Tiffany family and their business endeavors are part of popular culture? Baseball screams “American summer” to me. Where else can you get Cracker Jacks? I think, now, living in Sacramento, I should say that I am a Giants fan and a River Cats fan!
HK: Here’s to the River Cats! You mentioned earlier that you are working through exhibition details like wall color and text placement. Are you channeling the spirit of Tiffany’s work in interior design?
JY: I consider Tiffany a “360-degree thinker.” He thought about all the details of a space when designing, from the windows and furniture to textiles and lighting. In Tiffany’s time, a lamp would never exist in isolation. It was a functional object that would be one part of a larger room. Today, we typically see Tiffany lamps and vases in museums, one or two at a time. It is a different way of viewing Tiffany objects. As I work through the exhibition details like wall color, text, and object placement, I think about historical context and museum visitor experience in 2021. How can I provide an exhibition experience that is true to Tiffany’s historical moment while also having it make sense to Crocker visitors today? That is the goal.
HK: Louis Comfort Tiffany’s apartment on East 26th Street, in New York City, appeared in Artistic Houses in 1883 as a key example of a residence with an Aesthetic interior. You also describe him above as a “360-degree thinker.” Do you think it’s appropriate to label Tiffany’s practice as a type of Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art? He seems to have been involved in everything, not only designing interiors, but also creating functional pieces of furniture, works of art, and running a business.
JY: I think in Tiffany’s time, yes. He thought about an entire space, including color, light, architecture, texture, and materials. The problem is that we so rarely get to view Tiffany’s works in this way today. We typically see a vase or a lamp in isolation, or maybe a couple of objects grouped together in a museum display. It’s also had to understand how inventive and experimental Tiffany’s processes were for his time because the fields of glassmaking and glass art have advanced greatly since the late 1880s.
HK: Tiffany’s work traveled around the world, including being exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the 1902 Turin Exhibition. Without giving too much away about his network, was he moving in the same circles as Art Nouveau notables like Hector Guimard, Henri Van De Velde, or Victor Horta, and perhaps even William Morris and members of the Arts and Crafts movement?
JY: I would say he was socially more connected to American artists of the period, even though his artwork is often compared to artists of the European Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts movements. Tiffany had a strong artistic social network in New York that I coined the “Gilder Circle.” It was spearheaded by Richard Watson Gilder and Helena de Kay Gilder. Richard Watson Gilder was editor of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine from the magazine’s inception in 1881 into the early 1900s. He promoted members of his circle heavily in the magazine and hoped they would benefit from his publishing platform. Helena’s motto was “Fridays at home,” meaning that she hosted an artistic salon at the Gilder family house every Friday evening. A mix of writers, visual artists, politicians, musicians, actors and actresses were always present at the gatherings. It’s amazing to think that Tiffany’s design of Mark Twain’s house may have been “cooked up” at one of the “Friday nights at home.” If interested, readers can learn more about Tiffany’s connection to the Gilder Circle here (see the Who Gathers? section). Tiffany traveled, but not as much as some might assume. His New York-based businesses, family, and social calendar kept him busy.
HK: I love that you began our conversation by bringing up other notable glass artists in the Crocker’s permanent collection. Some of the artists you mentioned, like Preston Singletary and Deborah Moore, are working in our contemporary era — pushing the boundaries of glassmaking. Tiffany would have been at the height of his career over 100 years ago, do you think there is value in considering Tiffany’s innovations in juxtaposition to what contemporary glass artists are creating today?
JY: This is a great question. You and I have been asking each other whether Tiffany objects can signal to viewers anything other than tradition. I really think they can. Tiffany has more in common with 21st-century artists than what is visible on the surface. Environmental awareness, the preservation of natural landscapes, and the recognition of the ways in which humans interact with buildings tie directly to Tiffany’s artistic output. Not only did Tiffany rely heavily on the depiction of plants and insects in his designs, but he also created interiors that incorporated textures, diverse materials, architectural details, and color. The fusing of multiple sheets of glass together to create a layered effect and changes to the design and production process were ways in which Tiffany set a new standard. I see so many of these same ideas and the commitment to experimentation in the work of contemporary glass artists. Glass artists are pushing boundaries and incorporating current events, cultural traditions, and a sense of personal identity into their work. Art History is a continuum. Each new generation borrows from the last.
HK: Finally, is there anything else that visitors should be on the lookout for in the exhibition?
JY: I don’t want to give too much away, but look for quartz stones in the Landscape Window, detailed bronze bases on the lamps, a fire screen, a mosaic, and Crocker family brooches. I also want to encourage everyone to keep reading The Oculus. During the run of the exhibition, we’ll be publishing portions of my research related to a variety of topics, including Tiffany’s businesses, the Tiffany name, women designers, and Tiffany in the 2020s.