In Pursuit of Beauty
Louis C. Tiffany's Favrile Pottery
Louis C. Tiffany’s “quest for beauty”, as he referred to it, encompassed many media, including glass, lighting, enamels, and jewelry, but perhaps the shortest-lived and least commercially successful aspect of his business was pottery. Documentation shows that he and his craftsman at Tiffany Studios had begun experimenting with pottery by 1900. Tiffany was inspired primarily by French Art Nouveau ceramics during his extensive travels in France throughout the 1880s and 1890s, evidenced by his 1901 display of French pottery acquisitions alongside his Favrile glass at the Tiffany Studios building in downtown Manhattan.
The first head of the pottery department, Edith Lautrup, influenced the stylistic development of the studio’s output. Born in Denmark, she began her career at Bing & Grondahl in 1897 where she became familiar with decorator Effie Hegermann-Lindencrone’s naturalistic, reticulated, and finely decorated porcelain vessels. By 1900, Lautrup moved to New York and began working in the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios where Tiffany caught wind of her ceramics experience, enlisting her assistance in establishing a pottery studio. While her tenure lasted a brief year and a half, her early involvement with designs and glaze experimentation helped to lay a foundation for the pottery studio.
Tiffany was deeply personally invested in the success of Favrile pottery, taking several years to allow for experimentation and perfection of the wares prior to displaying a few examples at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. He exhibited several more times between 1904 and 1905 before finally offering a full range for sale in September of 1905 in conjunction with the opening of sister company Tiffany & Co.’s enormous new store on Fifth Avenue in New York. He pulled out all the stops when it came to marketing the pottery, including it in the 1906 Tiffany & Co. Blue Book catalog and trumpeting it as the “most recent Favrile product made under the personal supervision of Mr. Louis C. Tiffany”. Favrile, a term coined by Tiffany and often associated with his glass, in this case denoted the ceramic’s high quality and craftsmanship.
Tiffany may have been the guiding force, both personal and financial, behind the pottery studio, but it was the female artists behind the scenes who helped to execute his vision, along with Arthur Nash (also involved with developing glass and enamels at Tiffany Studios) who perfected the range of beautifully colored glazes. Similar to many contemporary potteries, the Tiffany pottery studio was staffed primarily by women, who designed, hand-finished, and glazed the works, with a few men on-hand to assist with the more physical casting and firing of the pieces. As Martin Eidelberg notes in his seminal book on Tiffany pottery, “limited serial production” may be the best term to use for Tiffany’s ceramics, as most were cast serially from molds and then hand-trimmed or pierced, as in the case of reticulated models.
The decorators created naturalistic renderings of plant forms inspired by the illustrated botanical albums in the firm’s library, Tiffany’s own drawings, as well as the copious dried plant specimens that festooned the studio’s walls. At times, models were created from living specimens, which involved spraying a cabbage, for example, with shellac, electroplating it in copper, and finally making a plaster of Paris mold into which clay could be pressed. Around 1908, Arthur Nash’s son, Leslie, became involved in the pottery studio (he would become manager around 1910) and was instrumental in introducing Favrile Bronze Pottery, which involved electroplating the pottery with copper and then patinating it to resemble bronze.
Though influenced by contemporary French and Scandinavian potteries, Tiffany Favrile Pottery retained its own distinct, more naturalistic character, complemented by a palette of sumptuous, unique, often earth-toned, glazes. It did not, however, attain the same level of success and acclaim as his glass, jewelry, or lighting. This could very well be, at least in part, because his pottery was more costly than most other art pottery at the time, with a general price range of $35-40 per piece versus, for example, Van Briggle or Newcomb College at $10-20. After 1910 the studio slowly declined before ceasing production in 1917. Throughout the 1910s, Tiffany continued to promote and exhibit his pottery, even including a few examples in his retrospective exhibition at Tiffany Studios in 1916. His efforts, in contrast to the somewhat tepid response of the public and collectors, demonstrate that he considered pottery to be just as important as his achievements in glass. He even retained and displayed many of his ceramics at Laurelton Hall, his private residence.
It is estimated that about 4,000 to 7,000 pieces were produced by the Tiffany pottery studio, and far fewer survived given its lack of contemporary popularity. In the past ten to twenty years, however, dedicated scholarship and exhibitions have revived an interest and appreciation in this oft-overlooked part of Tiffany Studios’ history.
Eidelberg, Martin. Tiffany Favrile Pottery and the Quest of Beauty. New York: Lillian Nassau LLC, 2010.