Rarely do examples of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s (1848–1933) most personal, and arguably most creative, works of art come to the market. But, in the fall of 2019 Lillian Nassau LLC unveiled a Tiffany treasure at TEFAF. It was a unique fireplace hood that reflects the artist’s eclectic approach to interior design and represents the caliber of detailed craftsmanship that went into the artwork included in his own homes. The work was prominently displayed first in his New York City mansion then later in his country estate, Laurelton Hall. The fireplace hood was also an object that Tiffany selected for illustration in distinguished periodicals to advertise his abilities as an interior designer.
Combining the spirit of Medieval craftsmanship and an influential American industrial material, this wrought iron fixture integrates tenets from British Gothic Reform and the indulgences of the Aesthetic Movement into one cohesive form. Tipping the scales in favor of the latter, however, the fireplace hood emulates the shape of a traditional pagoda—a distinct structure found in Asian architectural design, which by the 1870s had become an Aesthetic emblem of exoticism. Tiffany applied a variety of textures on the fireplace hood: the largely horizontal shape is distinguished by areas of vertical mica paneling that point upwards to a similarly paneled chimney. The arrangement becomes more complex with curled folds and overlapping flaps of iron outlined by raised rivets, areas of incised and relief decoration, and several groupings of pierced ‘tsuba’, or sword guards. These 22 ornate discs were once used to protect the hands of samurai from the blade of their sword and those of their opponents.
The fireplace hood was the focal point of a prominent wall in the library of Tiffany’s mansion on Madison Avenue and Seventy-Second Street by famed architects McKim, Mead & White (1879–1961), but the hood was undoubtably designed by Tiffany. The thousands of ‘tsuba’ purchased through his colleague, Lockwood de Forest (1850–1932), formed a distinct aesthetic decorative scheme, one that was published a number of times throughout the late 1890s. An article, “The Industrial Arts of America,” by art critic Cecilia Waern (1853–1926) in ‘International Studio’ articulated the period appreciation for blending tradition with modern elements: “In the true eclectic spirit, old objects are without hesitation incorporated into the scheme of decoration. Mr. Tiffany belongs to the type of artist that turns everything to decorative account… the fireplace in Mr. Tiffany’s library was inspired by the acquisition of whole barrelfuls [sic] of Japanese swordguards.”(1)
After Tiffany’s retirement in 1919, he began to move his most treasured objects to Laurelton Hall as a museum showcasing high points of his creativity. At Laurelton Hall, he placed the fireplace hood into the smoking room, a room that linked the dining room with the porch to the Daffodil Terrace. In its final, poetic move, the fireplace hood will be reunited with key elements from these spaces now exhibited at the Morse Museum, further bringing to life Louis C. Tiffany’s dream of a museum featuring his most cherished works.
The Morse Museum acquired the fireplace hood with the generous assistance of Paul and Sharon Steinwachs.
(1) Cecilia Waern “The Industrial Arts of America: The Tiffany Glass and Decorating Co.,” International Studio, vol. 11 (September 1897), pp. 156-65