Window, ca. 1880. Louis Comfort Tiffany (American,1848–1933). Leaded glass. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Robert Koch, 2002 2002.474
· BY ·

“A Little Band of Artists”: Louis C. Tiffany’s First Interior Decorating Firm

On the Gilded Age master’s 170th birthday, we look back at his initial foray into the decorative arts

As a young man, Louis Comfort Tiffany observed the gifted artisans who made the luxury goods sold by his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, in his prestigious New York City store. Later, as an entrepreneur himself, Louis employed painters, glassmakers, stonemasons, mosaicists, modelers, metal workers, woodcarvers, and textile workers. Talented, ambitious, and industrious, he brought a savvy marketing ability to his various enterprises.

But before he found his calling in decorative design, Louis C. Tiffany aspired to be a painter. From boarding school in New Jersey, the teenage Louis wrote in 1863 to his sister Annie, “I am going to take lessons in oil colors just as soon as I get a paint box,” and the next year he won a school award for proficiency in drawing.

He was just 19 when he had a painting shown at the National Academy. As he continued to exhibit his work, the New York press lauded his landscapes and figure studies, and in 1870, he became the youngest member elected to the private Century Club, an elite group of artists and writers. His Snake Charmer at Tangier, Africa (below) in The Met collection was painted in 1872, when he was 24. Yet, despite this acclaim—and the occasional sale—Tiffany remained financially dependent on his rich father. 

“Snake Charmer at Tangier, Africa,” 1872. Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933). Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, 1921 21.170

And so in 1878 he formed Louis C. Tiffany & Company, in keeping with the then-current spirit of the British Arts and Crafts movement, which encouraged a revival of handmade crafts and the medieval guild system. The related business report describes Tiffany as “a young married man of fair ability & no means whatever being assisted by his father & not making a living from profession.” But he did enjoy the good fortune of being a well-known painter—with a name associated with luxury and taste. 

For the next five years, Louis C. Tiffany & Company collaborated on various interior design projects with the artist Samuel Colman, the artist and collector Lockwood de Forest, and the textile designer Candace Wheeler. under a subsidiary they called Associated Artists. Tiffany and Wheeler also produced textiles under their names (below) between 1879 and 1881. 

Sample, ca. 1885. Designed by Tiffany & Wheeler (1879–1881). Probably manufactured by Cheney Brothers (American, 1838–1955). Silk and metal threads, damask, woven. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith, 1928 28.70.3

In her memoirs, Wheeler quotes Tiffany: “I have been thinking a great deal about decorative work, and I am going into it as a profession. I believe there is more in it than in painting pictures… Colman and de Forest and I are going to make a combination for interior decoration of all sorts. I shall work out some ideas I have in glass. De Forest is going to India to look up carved woods, and Colman will look after color and textiles. You had better join us. It is the real thing, you know; a business, not a philanthropy or an amateur educational scheme. We are going after the money there is in art, but the art is there, all the same. If your husband will let you, you had better join us and take up embroidery and decorative needlework. There are great possibilities in it.”

To advertise his skills, he opened his own lavishly decorated studio in the Bella Apartments at 48 East 26th Street to visitors; the experimental stained-glass window shown at top was on display, his earliest known domestic window. The aesthetic of Tiffany and the Associated Artists incorporated many ideals of the Aesthetic movement, such as flat patterns, exotic references, and shimmering surfaces. Among their many wealthy and illustrious clients were the Union League Club; John Taylor Johnston, the first president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (below); and U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, for whom in 1882 they adorned the White House with opalescent tiles, stained-glass screens, and Japanese leather—none of which remain today.

John Taylor Johnson, the first president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of Tiffany’s clients. “John Taylor Johnston” (1820–1893), 1880. Léon Bonnat (French, 1833–1922). Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 44 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Trustees, 1880 80.8

Two commissions that can still be seen are the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Veteran’s Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City, which Tiffany himself described as “a glowing room.” 

Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Associated Artists amicably separated in April 1883. Candace Wheeler took the helm at Associated Artists, the first woman to head her own design firm, while Tiffany moved on to his innovate work in glass and other triumphs. This chair in The Met collection (below) was later made by Tiffany and Colman for the glamorous New York City residence of industrialist H. O. Havemeyer, who notably went on to donate a large collection of masterworks to The Met in 1929.

Armchair, ca. 1891–92. Made by Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933) and Samuel Colman (American, 1832–1920). Oak, silk velvet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Harry W. Havemeyer and Frelinghuysen Foundation Gifts, in memory of H. O. Havemeyer, 1992 1992.125

 Writing about them in August 1884, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine noted: “A few years ago a little band of artists of New York, headed by Mr. Louis C. Tiffany, determined to inaugurate a new era in house decoration, where each member of the advisory firm should be a specialist of skill and ripe culture. This was done; and the results they have brought about may, without exaggeration, be called the first fruits of the American Renaissance.”

So here’s a nod to the early decorative designs of Louis C. Tiffany, born on this day in 1848. Shop our unique related products here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Museum reserves the right to delete comments that it deems inappropriate for any reason. Comments are moderated and publication times may vary.

Copyright © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. All rights reserved. 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028.
Terms & Conditions · Privacy