Book Review:

Clara and Mr. Tiffany, which was written by Susan Vreeland, is an intriguing historical novel that is based on the life of Clara Driscoll. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Clara headed up the Women’s Department at Tiffany Studios. The workers in her department carefully selected the pieces of glass used for leaded-glass lampshades and windows and they precisely cut those pieces to the exact sizes that were required. There is evidence that Clara herself came up with design ideas for some of the famous Tiffany lampshades (such as the dragonfly lampshades and the wisteria lampshades).

The “Mr. Tiffany” in the title is Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of the Tiffany & Co. jewelry store. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s business was separate from Tiffany & Co. until his father passed away in 1902 and the book makes reference to the rivalry that existed between the father and son. Though the title might hint at it, there is no indication that there was a romantic relationship between Clara and Louis. Rather, it seems that they had a complex, creative collaboration that resulted in items of extraordinary beauty.

For those of us who are enchanted by Tiffany lampshades and windows, this book provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what went into creating these functional works of art. It also gives a sense of what life was like in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. In particular, the author portrays what it was like then for a woman who was trying to have her own career. The book, which is written with Clara as the narrator, covers her personal life as well, including friendship and romance.

And this historical novel captures the excitement of being in New York City during a very dynamic period in its history. For example, Vreeland writes the following when Clara sees the completed Flatiron Building for the first time: “Coming down through Madison Square Park, I saw the building thrusting skyward above the trees. At a certain angle, only one of its long sides was visible, so it looked like a completely flat building, a mere façade without any width at all, like a giant piece of cardboard balanced on end and painted with windows. It was both disconcerting and thrilling.”

Over a hundred years ago, Clara and the workers in her department demonstrated to the men at Tiffany Studios that women can perform challenging jobs. Susan Vreeland’s book brings to light their talents and accomplishments in an entertaining fashion.

See more features from the December 2014 issue