CINCINNATI -- Melding technology and nature into innovative, undeniably gorgeous and highly practical artwork for the modern home -- it sounds like an elevator pitch from the next Cincinnati startup.
But it describes the work of Louis C. Tiffany and the hundreds of designers, chemists and artisans at Tiffany Studios at the turn of the last century.
"People forget just how avant garde Tiffany was," said Lindsy Parrott, director and curator of The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in Queens, N.Y., which organized the exhibit.
We might think of Tiffany lamps as old-fashioned, but when created they were shockingly modern, Parrott said. They took advantage of electricity, a relatively new technology, and featured natural landscapes and florals.
Tiffany, originally a painter interested in the way color and light worked in landscapes, used colored glass to achieve his designs instead of painting on glass, the traditional method.
Open through Aug. 13, the Neustadt exhibit expands on Tiffany items from Cincinnati Art Museum's permanent collection, including four church windows and dozens of blown-glass vessels created by the Tiffany studios. Those items are on display on the second floor, as always, along with an interactive display that allows you to paint with glass as Tiffany and his collaborators did, while the traveling exhibit, showcasing the iconic lamps, fills three galleries across from the museum cafe.
"This allows us to expose our visitors … to the breadth of Tiffany's achievements in glass, and to his revolutionary methods," said Amy Dehan, curator of decorative arts for Cincinnati Art Museum.
In the darkened galleries, the lamps glow and shimmer. Simply taking in the way the glass mimics and replicates nature and softer materials makes the exhibit worth a visit. The wisteria shade truly looks like bunches of purple blooms draped over a light. The ripple glass of a floor lamp makes you believe the shade is edged in soft, twisted fringe.
But in admiring these shining pieces of art, don't gloss over the educational portions of the exhibit. A glass case full of 200 bits of glass salvaged from Tiffany Studios when it closed in 1937 is nearly as beautiful as the lamps around it, plus it shows you how the different types of glass -- ripple, mottled, streaky or hammered -- allowed artists to make their creations so realistic.
In that same gallery, you'll learn about Agnes Northrop and Clara Driscoll, two women who created some of the most iconic Tiffany designs. Northrop worked for Tiffany for 50 years and designed nearly all the landscape windows commissioned from the studios, while Driscoll, an Ohio native, was the manager of the Women's Glasscutting Department and designed the wisteria and dragonfly lamps.
"Her designs are reflective of both her creativity and the practicality that she brought to the studios," Parrott said.
Driscoll also is the main character in Susan Vreeland's historical novel, "Clara and Mr. Tiffany," based on Driscoll's letters to her family about her work at Tiffany Studios. Vreeland researched the book at Neustadt, and Parrott said it's mostly accurate, though, she said, there's no evidence Tiffany was as Napoleonic as he is portrayed.
"He seems like a pretty nice guy, a pretty retiring guy, who really lived for art, who really lived for art and beauty," Parrott said.
Tiffany's work fell out of fashion through the Great Depression and World War II but was revived in the late 1950s. As interest in the glasswork picked up, so did prices -- and forgeries.
The final room of "Tiffany Glass" pits three authentic Tiffany lamps against three forgeries and gives you tools to tell the difference. It's difficult. See if you can do it without checking the item cards.
Admission and parking to Cincinnati Art Museum, along with "Tiffany Glass," are free. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.