Vreeland brings to life a story that only a few people knew – the story of Tiffany’s Women’s Division, and the prejudice his female workers faced at the hands of both Tiffany’s male workers and the unions that represented them – and from which women were barred. While open-minded enough to admire the talent and innovation of the women he hired, Tiffany’s company policies specifically prevented them from working directly with men, or from working once they were married. Additionally, the individual designer’s of Tiffany’s award winning lamps and windows were not given credit in his catalogues, allowing Tiffany to benefit from the actions of the women, while binding them to him in their obscurity.
In addition to the feminist tension, there’s also capitalist tension, with Tiffany’s financial officers constantly at war with Tiffany’s designers. Not surprisingly, the “suits” are seeking profitability, while the “hands” are moved by creativity. The heart of this debate goes back as far as artists have required benefactors to pay for their continued innovation. But it’s interesting that this particular debate about the “corporatization” of art took place right at the time when the ornamentation of the Victorian era was being replaced by a more modern aesthetic. It made me wonder how much of the change was driven by the desire to produce more profitable art.
The novel is compelling, and I found myself indignant at times, and charmed at others. But there were also times when I felt the story was somewhat constrained by Clara’s first person narration. I think that’s because Vreeland wants us to have context for Driscoll’s amazing accomplishments, but it served to contort the narrative, making Clara’s voice seem stilted, or worse, boastful:
Creativity happens, I thought, when you look at one thing and see another – like Mr. Tiffany seeing a lamp in a nautilus shell. No one would think of a woven basket in connection with an underwater scene, but I did. Fish swimming among tall seaweed made me think of a current threading its wayin front of and behind the warp of reeds. Water made of ripple glass could give the illusion that strips of glass could be pliable, as they might appear underwater. The fish would be recognizable but the rest more abstract, simpler, with fewer “things” in the sea. I sensed a coming breakthrough from Victorian quaintness to a new idiom, and took the drawing to Mr. Belknap. He approved immediately.p.209You had me until the “coming breakthrough.” It’s a little thing, but in other parts the book reads so well that the “social history lesson” parts felt distracting. What I did love was Vreeland’s telling of the complex story of how Tiffany windows and lamps evolved, and how the Tiffany Studios pushed the boundaries of technique and design to produce the gorgeous pieces I’ve oohed-and-aahed at in museums. And I was somehow glad to know that a committed group of women were working ahead of their time to bring the pieces to life.
This book is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction and feminist fiction, especially those interested in the history of women in the workplace. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour for the paperback release of this novel, and received a copy in return for my honest opinion. Your can find links to other opinions here.