Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Clara and Mr. Tiffany - Susan Vreeland

The next time you see a Tiffany lampshade or a mosaic design from Tiffany glassworks or the more ornate stained glass windows made by Louis Comfort Tiffany's glass design studios, think of Clara Driscoll and the host of women who worked in a closed department in turn of the century New York City. Tiffany was a creative force with deep pockets who strived to bring beauty and nature together through his glass studios. He encouraged creativity without worry about cost when his staff designed the glass windows, mosaics, and finally lampshades, boxes, and smaller interior design items. It was his undoing, as his cost overruns were notorious for pieces that were often times one of a kind items that required high price tags. The rich and forward thinking purchased, but for a good while, the growing middle class of the industrial America of the Gilded Age couldn't afford such extravagance.

Susan Vreeland has written an edifying book about this era of history, when art and nature were blended and brought to the American consumer. Louis Comfort Tiffany hired a large team of female artists that had been trained in art schools and craft programs throughout the US. As some of them came to New York, looking for work, he saw a need for 'a female touch' within his glass studios. He believed that women had a keener  and more nuanced eye for color selection and color blending in the intricate windows that his studio was producing, hence a career opportunity opened for these women. This was important, as most female jobs revolved around secretarial work, teaching, and helping professions (nursing, cleaning, cooking). Branching into the arts and artisan work was a real step forward.  Some women came into the glass studios as glass cutters, but advanced, as they developed an artistic feel for the images and the design process

Enter Clara Driscoll, a trained artist from the Midwest. Clara is a 'modern woman'. She is widowed when the story begins and has returned to Tiffany's studios to ask for her glass cutting job back, as she'd been required to resign when she married. The book follows her life, as she makes the adjustment to living in a boarding house with other artists and 'free thinkers' who encourage each others' creative ventures. She struggles with the double standard that allows male workers to marry, but forces female workers to remain single (or hide their personal relationships). She struggles with Tiffany's practice of taking the creative ideas of workers and not acknowledging their source or crediting the workers on the glass creations.

Clara was an extremely loyal employee and over the years, advanced to head the women's design and production studio. Her hunger for artistic release and talent for glass design kept her focused on her career. In Vreeland's book, we see her have semi-successful relationships with men that fizzle for various reasons (no spoilers, here), knock heads with male managers, bring along other young women who she brings to the studios for employment, and finally, come to terms with her business relationship with Louis C. Tiffany and his board of managers. Along the way, Vreeland uses Clara and her girls to teach the reader a lot about the intricacies of stained glass production and design.

Many of the windows and lamps written into the story are actual pieces that you can see in museums and collections world-wide by searching on-line. The work done by Clara and her Tiffany girls was stunningly beautiful and the story that tells us about these young artists is eye-opening. They blazed the way for women in manufacturing to rise above 'mill girl' status - important,  at a time of burgeoning women's rights issues and union/labor organizing.

Being an art fiend, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Others might be bogged down a bit by the passages that concentrate on the intricacies of glass design and glass cutting technique, but I was fascinated. Clara's life story was discreetly told and not overly romanticized, which was a positive for me, as I was more intrigued with the history of the story, the actual glass pieces and windows produced and how they fit into historical events of the Gilded Age.


  1. This is so interesting. I love it when you finish reading a novel and feel like you've come away with something more than, simply, a good read. I'll keep this book in mind. Thanks, Susan.

  2. Very interesting. My niece is a modern day Clara also working in NYC making lamps. Wonder what she might think of this book.