Little-known female designer was a major creative light at Tiffany

  • By Mary Beth Breckenridge Akron Beacon Journal
  • Friday, March 21, 2014 12:32pm
  • Life

AKRON, Ohio — You’ve probably heard of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained-glass lamps. You may even be familiar with some of his more famous lamp styles, such as the Wisteria and the Dragonfly.

But you may not know those lamps were designed not by Tiffany, but by a woman who came from Tallmadge, Ohio.

Clara Wolcott Driscoll was the creative force behind many of Tiffany’s most successful designs.

Around the turn of the 20th century, she led a group of female artisans who designed and cut the glass for many Tiffany lamps, and she personally designed some of the most valuable Tiffany lamps as well as some other decorative objects his company made.

Yet for the most part, she did it anonymously.

Driscoll’s importance to Tiffany’s success went largely unrecognized until less than a decade ago, when a couple of historians stumbled separately on evidence of her role.

Their discoveries led to an exhibition on Driscoll and her staff called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls,” which was created by the New-York Historical Society and has since traveled as far as Germany and the Netherlands.

To Linda Alexander, it’s a story made for Hollywood.

Alexander is a fourth cousin of Driscoll’s and a genealogy buff who has immersed herself in her cousin’s colorful life.

The Stow, Ohio, resident has been giving presentations locally on Driscoll since 2007 in the hope of boosting the profile of a woman whose contributions went mostly unnoticed during her own lifetime.

Driscoll was born in 1861 in Tallmadge. She graduated from design school in Cleveland and later moved to New York to study architectural decoration at the Metropolitan Museum Art School.

Around 1888 she joined Tiffany Studios, started by Louis C. Tiffany, whose father founded the famous Tiffany &Co. jewelry store. Her on-again, off-again employment at Tiffany Studios lasted 20 years.

This was the 19th century, when married women were expected to stay at home, Alexander explained. So marriage — and in one case, marriage plans — forced Driscoll to quit her job three times, but always returning.

At Tiffany, Driscoll headed the women’s glass-cutting department and was the principal designer.

She often based her designs on nature, Alexander said, sometimes asking family members to send her flowers from Tallmadge to inspire her work.

A 1904 article in the New York Daily News about highly paid women noted she earned more than $10,000 a year, a salary that would translate to more than $250,000 today.

But apparently, Louis Tiffany didn’t like sharing the limelight. His company’s records were lost after it closed in the 1930s.

Her contributions might never have been known publicly, in fact, if it weren’t for her family’s prolific letter-writing.

After Driscoll’s sister Emily Wolcott died in 1953, 1,163 of the letters were found in Wolcott’s summer cabin and eventually donated to Kent State University, Alexander said.

Another 167 were found in the attic of a house Wolcott once owned in Queens, N.Y., and donated to the historical society there.

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