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Tiffany Glass in American Culture

November 16, 2023

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) transformed the glass world with his patented Favrile process, which created a shimmering, iridescent effect, in the 1890s. More than a century later, Tiffany remains a household name, conjuring images of iridescent stained-glass windows and lighting. How has Tiffany stood the test of time?

Daffodil table lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios, 1903-1920.

Daffodil table lamp, designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios, 1903-1920. / THF167923

Tiffany worked with the leader of the Art Nouveau movement in Paris and became internationally renowned in the 1890s. Competing European glassmakers took inspiration from Tiffany, and rivals in the American market worked to develop wares that were almost indistinguishable from his — all helping to establish Tiffany as the look in art glass. Tiffany famously applied Art Nouveau aesthetics to lighting, creating what would become the iconic “Tiffany lamp.”

American tastes changed after World War I as people began searching for something modern and different in their décor. A new geometric style called Art Deco emerged, but Tiffany products remained rooted in the now-passé Art Nouveau. Sales plummeted in the 1920s, and the Great Depression finally shuttered Tiffany Studios. One scholar noted that Tiffany lamps, vases and decorative objects became fodder for tag and rummage sales. Nevertheless, influences of Tiffany’s aesthetic lingered throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

1930s White Castle sign

This 1930s White Castle sign shows Tiffany’s lingering influence. / Detail, THF101929

In the 1950s, museums began reevaluating Tiffany’s contributions to American culture. In 1955, the Morse Gallery of Art in Winter Park, Florida, organized "Works of Art by Louis Comfort Tiffany," the first solo exhibition of Tiffany since his death. Others, including Henry Ford Museum, began collecting Tiffany objects as early as 1954. By 1959, the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York included Tiffany glass in its modern design gallery and produced a groundbreaking exhibit, "Art Nouveau: Art and Design at the Turn of the Century." This reappraisal led to the beginning of new scholarship on Tiffany and a broader market for art glass among collectors from the 1960s onward.

The revival of interest in Tiffany's work — and in Art Nouveau in general — came into vogue through the counterculture of the 1960s. Just as before, a younger generation sought out new directions in material culture. In this, they referenced just about anything that rebelled against the prevailing minimalism of mid-century modernism. The highly decorative and organic qualities of Tiffany glass appealed to them.

Eurich's in Dearborn

The sense of nostalgia evoked by hippie culture appeared early on in mainstream material culture through old-fashioned ice cream parlors like Eurich's in Dearborn, Michigan, seen here circa 1962. Note the Tiffany-style lighting above the counter. / THF147849

By the early 1970s, Tiffany was more than a name — it was a style. Tiffany lamps reached the height of their popularity. And with the United States Bicentennial in 1976, Americans became even more enamored with the nostalgia of the American past. This led many companies to embrace an old-fashioned look that often included Tiffany-style lighting — the sort that filled early Wendy’s fast food restaurants, for example.

Tiffany Classic ornament

In the 1970s, Tiffany became fully diffused in American mainstream culture, as evidenced by Hallmark’s Tiffany Classics series of holiday ornaments. / THF177479

This nostalgia continued throughout the early 1980s but began to wane over the course of the decade. Yet even as the Tiffany style faded from fashion, it remained a cultural icon.

Charles Sable is curator of decorative arts at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted for the blog by Saige Jedele, associate curator.