by thomas connors | September 23, 2013 | Lifestyle
Tiffany lamps on display at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
Collector Richard Dreihaus.
Landscape window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, (1893-1920).
With their arresting shapes and rich play of color, the designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany express a distinctive combination of artistry and craftsmanship and remain among the most compelling in the history of the decorative arts. Hallmarks of the self-assured, newly industrialized America that emerged after the Civil War, these objects adorned homes both grand and modest, typifying a sensibility that both the elite and the aspiring middle class could embrace. With “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection,” the Richard H. Driehaus Museum celebrates that singular style in a sumptuous setting.
The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Company, Louis Comfort Tiffany possessed an artist’s eye, an inventor’s curiosity, and the savvy of a determined businessman. He began as a painter, but soon shifted his attention to interior design, launching his first venture in 1878. Within a few years, glass was central to his creative and commercial efforts. Working with English glassworker Arthur Nash, he developed new techniques for realizing greater effects of color and texture. And as the enterprise grew, Tiffany expanded the range of his activities to include not only stained glass windows and lamps, but blown-glass vases, mosaics, enamelware, metalwork, and jewelry. And Chicagoans were not immune to his infectious vision and the talents of his team.
Tiffany, who had opened an office in Chicago in the 1880s, impressed countless individuals with the elaborate Byzantine-style mosaic chapel he designed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Before long, his clients included the Art Institute (this initial commission, a gallery, was lost in a 1950s remodel, but the dome he installed in Fullerton Hall remains) and the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center). And when Marshall Field opened its new State Street emporium in 1907, the firm’s handiwork graced the ceiling of the store’s five-story atrium. “Tiffany had an incredible talent and the smarts to hire the right people,” observes veteran exhibition designer Jeff Daly, who fashioned the installation of the show. “His firm produced an amazing amount of work over the years for a client base that ranged from the wealthiest to regular people who wanted to have a piece of Tiffany in their lives.”
Organized by David Hanks, curator of the Liliane and David M. Stewart Program for Modern Design, Montreal, and installed by exhibition designer Jeff Daly (formerly with the Metropolitan Museum of Art), “Treasures from the Driehaus Collection” presents a range of work, including a candelabra from the 1893 fair and an astrological mosaic from the long-gone Men’s Grille at Marshall Field’s. And while visitors will be delighted by the fluid forms of the vases and the rich botanical beauty of the lamps, collector Richard Driehaus is partial to Tiffany’s stained glass windows. In 1980 he acquired his first, which he hung in Gilhooley’s, a South Side bar he opened, outfitted with architectural artifacts. Says Driehaus, “I think Tiffany’s windows—especially the memorial and devotional windows, which are so heartfelt and poignant—represent the zenith of his artistic expression.”
“The windows on display, most of which weren’t intended for residences, are very powerful,” notes Daly. “And by placing LED panels behind them, we’re able to control various zones, control the intensity and depth of color. The effect is phenomenal, and these windows come alive in a way they probably didn’t when they were new.”
It doesn’t hurt that these and all the other items on view are presented in the former Nickerson mansion, built between 1879 and 1883. With its grand entry hall (clad in over 17 types of marble), domed sculpture gallery, jewel-like smoking room, and handsome library, this properly impressive home is a jaw-dropping manifestation of the good life in the late 19th century. Although it is not known if the Nickerson family members were patrons of Tiffany, this richly executed Gilded Age residence is an eminently appropriate envelope for the work his studio produced. As Driehaus Museum director Lise Dubé-Scherr notes, “Aside from the fact that the exhibition reveals a great personal collection, aside from the fact that we explore Tiffany in Chicago, I think what will blow people away is seeing these objects in magnificent rooms of the period. When you see these pieces in this context, they do take on a new meaning; you do read them in a different way. You still read them as individual objects, but all of sudden, they are part of a larger story.”
Opened to the public in 2008, the Driehaus Museum may represent an unknown quantity for even dedicated museumgoers. In its first three years of operation, access was limited to guided tours for small groups. Since then, visitor numbers, membership, and programming have all grown, and more than 200,000 people enjoyed the museum in 2012. For Driehaus, founder of Driehaus Capital Management and an active philanthropist, this first exhibition is the next step in securing the institution’s position as a cultural destination. Says Driehaus, “I really think this is going to put the museum on the map.” “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection” will run from September 28 through June 29, 2014, at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St., 312- 482-8933
photography by john faier