The father of the English Arts & Crafts Movement William Morris once stated, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This maxim surely included the office, and Morris would most certainly have approved of this six-piece desk set by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a perfect marriage of beauty and utility. Best-known for high end decorative objects such as lamps, art glass and ceramics, and stained glass windows, Tiffany and Company also produced a number of more modestly priced utilitarian objects such as glass tableware, candlesticks, mirrors, and desk sets.
Although a vast number of Tiffany’s early twentieth-century desk accessories survive today, these objects were not mass-produced. Rather they were made individually in small lots, and pieces were priced and sold separately so there was no such thing as a standard set – customers could pick and choose based on their specific needs. Tiffany produced desk sets in twenty styles; this is an example of the Etched Metal and Glass Grapevine motif, today both the rarest and most recognizable pattern.
The desk set was designed around 1899 and was in production until the 1920s. Tiffany produced these sets using relatively inexpensive materials: sheets of etched bronze and pre-cut glass. Using prefabricated materials meant that the entire assembly process could take place at the workman’s bench, eliminating the time-consuming processes of casting and furnace firing. Furthermore, the Etched Metal and Glass sets incorporate metal sheets for exterior surfaces only; the interiors made use of a clever system of interlocking glass to reduce the amount of bronze required to complete each design. Reducing materials and simplifying production meant that Tiffany’s Grapevine desk objects couple be more modestly priced than the firm’s higher-end items, thus explaining the pattern’s popularity among consumers who were eager to possess highly fashionable Tiffany objects at more accessible price points. At the same time, the demand for Grapevine desk objects and the ease of production encouraged competing firms to emulate Tiffany’s designs for mass-consumption, resulting in a number of inauthentic pastiches produced at the height of the pattern’s popularity.
The Grapevine pattern remains one of Tiffany’s most iconic designs and is very much in keeping with Louis’s motto that “Mother Nature is the best designer.” The motif has ties to both Bacchic and Christian imagery, however the flattened aesthetic of Tiffany’s trellis, fruit, and curling vine decoration is most evocative of Japanese stencil designs, all the rage at the turn of the twentieth century. The Far Eastern appearance of the set is further heightened by the texture of the etched bronze that encapsulate and protect the emerald-colored striated glass. The finish was achieved by patinating the bronze to give it a brown hue and then applying green paint; over time the green would fade with use and cleaning, resulting in a rich, irregular finish. Most of the Grapevine objects utilized bronze whose etching completely penetrated the surface to allow the gem-like glass to show through, although certain pieces, such as the inkwell lid, were only partially etched to create a sense of texture without the filigree appearance seen throughout the Etched Metal and Glass collection. The bead-chain ornament that wraps the edges of the box and ink roller lends these pieces an additional luxuriance, however this element was stripped from later iterations of the Grapevine pattern, most likely to reduce cost.
Tiffany’s desk sets are iconic examples of the firm’s high-art aesthetic applied to objects for practical use. They fit comfortably into the canon of the American Arts & Crafts and Aesthetic Movements and illustrate the increasing importance of design in the lives of people from all walks of life. They are both a manifestation of Morris’s ideology and Tiffany’s artistic entrepreneurship.
This desk set is currently on view in Passion for the Exotic: Louis Comfort Tiffany and Lockwood de Forest
Rachel Hunnicutt is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.