These Women Were the Real Geniuses Behind the Iconic Tiffany Lamps

A chic light fixture reveals how female designers remade the Tiffany brand—and went largely uncredited for nearly a century

Dragonfly Lamp
Pioneering designer Clara Driscoll conceived this indelible lamp around the turn of the 20th century—with help from her fellow "Tiffany girls." Chelsea Kyle; prop stylist: Rebecca Bartoshesky

Few if any decorative objects of the early 1900s are as sought after as Tiffany lamps, with their signature patterned lampshades that resemble ornate stained-glass windows. Today, originals, often with dazzling insects and floral motifs, routinely fetch tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction or on design websites—and one Dragonfly Tiffany light from Andrew Carnegie’s personal collection sold for more than $2.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York in 2015. Museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum feature the painted bronze and glass table lamps in their permanent collections. The handcrafted iridescent artworks have spawned many modern knockoffs, from infinitely less expensive copies to Tiffany-style Star Wars lampshades.

But equally precious is the secret history contained in these extravagant sculptural lamps. They tell the story of a group of remarkable but overlooked artisans called the Tiffany girls, and particularly of one visionary artist, Clara Driscoll, longtime head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s company. Without Driscoll, many of these iconic Art Nouveau creations would never have existed in the first place.

For decades, however, nearly all the lamps were credited to Tiffany himself, a painter-craftsman and son of the company’s founders. Company ads at the time heralded him as chief designer of these exquisite products, highlighting his alleged personal oversight of the process. The company never even mentioned Driscoll in public materials. The artistic achievements of Driscoll and the other Tiffany girls would have remained lost to time but for the discovery of several hundred turn-of-the-century Driscoll family letters in 2005. As it turns out, Driscoll exchanged hundreds of fateful pages with her three younger sisters and their mother, many of which chronicled Driscoll’s daily life at Tiffany Studios. In the letters, Driscoll regularly identifies herself as the designer of some of the company’s most beloved lamps, including the Wisteria, Butterfly, Fern, Poppy and Dragonfly models.

Driscoll had come to Tiffany after earning a degree from Western Reserve School of Design for Women (which became the Cleveland Institute of Art) and working for a Cleveland furniture maker. She moved to Brooklyn in 1888 with her sister Josephine. They both dreamed of becoming artists and were soon hired by Tiffany Studios. Clara’s first stint there was curtailed, however, by her engagement to Francis S. Driscoll, because the company only employed single women. In 1892, Driscoll’s husband died, and she rejoined the firm, where she went on to become the chief designer of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, devoted to the design and production of lampshades, with 35 young Tiffany girls under her helm.

The Tiffany girls hand-selected tiny shards of colored glass from thousands of glass sheets and were responsible for every facet of design and fabrication—except soldering the cut and foiled pieces of glass together, a task completed by the men’s glass-cutting department, since only men were permitted to use heating tools. In 1896, Driscoll became engaged to Edwin Waldo, leaving Tiffany once again, but returning to the company quickly by 1897—a second and final time—after Waldo abruptly disappeared before they could be married. (He turned up years later, claiming amnesia.)

Thanks to that trove of letters, we now know about Driscoll’s leadership at Tiffany Studios and her role in the creation of its iconic lamps. In a letter dated June 29, 1898, for example, she describes her artistic process for the company’s famous Butterfly lamp, making a “model of paper and linen so that Mr. Tiffany could see exactly what [her] idea was.” In a letter the following year, she tells her family: “This Dragonfly lamp is an idea that I had last summer.”

One particularly fine Dragonfly lamp resides in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt, donated in 1977 by Andrew and Louise Carnegie’s only child, Margaret Carnegie Miller. It’s an appropriate home for the lamp: As Emily Orr, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary design, points out, the Cooper Hewitt is housed in what used to be the Carnegie family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue.

“By advocating for herself and proposing design ideas for this new range of lamps, Clara really helped to create Tiffany’s market for leaded glass shades,” elevating the house’s reputation through the decades to follow, Orr says. Now, Driscoll’s reputation is getting the burnishing it deserves. In 1944, her death certificate listed her occupation as housewife. More recently, she’s been celebrated in two novels, and museums across the country are beginning to give Driscoll due credit as the true creative genius behind the Tiffany lamps so many still clamor for today.

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This article is a selection from the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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