Tiffany lamps were originally made by Louis Comfort Tiffany who was a painter working in the 19th century. He was admitted to the National Academy when he was 23 and was the youngest ever member. He started working with coloured glass in the 1870’s and made many stained glass windows for churches, often using flowers and plants in his designs.
Following on from this he teamed up with two other artist to found Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated American Artists, a company specialising in glass windows, a prime example of which can be seen in the White House. The company was dissolved in 1885 and he started the Tiffany Glass Company, alone this time. This later became the Tiffany Studios which made Tiffany lamps until the beginning of the 1930’s.
When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879 he was inspired to make glass lampshades, drawing on his experience with stained glass windows and incorporating the flower and plant designs he had used for them. He also used the same methods as he had used for the windows, making paper patterns of the design and using these to cut the glass pieces, edging the pieces with copper foil and soldering them together to construct the lampshades. He patented the Nautilus lampshade, a shell shaped design, and included this when he staged his first exhibition in 1899.
Today Tiffany lamps and lampshades are still made to Tiffany’s traditional methods. The lampshades are made from many pieces of coloured stained glass soldered together to make designs which include flowers, dragonflies, butterflies and also more abstract designs.
The traditional method takes many hours of careful work. First a wooden model of the required tiffany lampshade is carved, covered in glue, and paper or linen is laid over it. The design is then drawn on the paper/linen, the lines representing each small piece of coloured glass which will create the design, notation is added to specify the colour of each piece.
When the design is completed the paper/linen is taken off the model and cut along selected lines so it lays flat and becomes a two dimensional pattern. Each area is numbered to identify it, the design traced onto another piece of paper as a reference for later assembly of the lampshade, then the original is cut into all the separate pieces, which are used to cut the small pieces of coloured glass.
The design is then built up by applying adhesive wax to the wooden model and pressing each glass piece into it, following the reference plan. When the whole lampshade is assembled the glass pieces are removed individually, edged with copper foil and soldered back in place. The whole thing is then heated to melt the wax and allow the lampshade to be removed and the inner edges to be soldered. If required by the design metal trims are soldered to the to and/or bottom edges, before the lampshade is attached to a metal (often bronze) base.
Tiffany lamps are wonderful as accent pieces in a home, adding an elegance often lacking in modern designs. The jewel coloured stained glass throws brilliant shards of light onto walls and ceilings, and a Tiffany lamp will transform a dark corner into something magical.