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The Art of Designing Everything
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January 01, 2012
CIA Scholar-in-Residence Mark Bassett profiles alumna Clara Wolcott Driscoll.
Soon after 1882, when the Cleveland Institute of Art was founded with the name “the Western Reserve School of Design for Women,” Clara Pierce Wolcott of Tallmadge, Ohio, decided to enroll. In some ways, hers is a story of wealth and fame.
During Clara’s own time, an April 17, 1904 article in the New York Daily News implied that she was one of a few New York City “Women Who Make $10,000 a Year or More,” applauding her winning a Bronze Medal at the 1900 Paris world’s fair for a dragonfly lamp Clara had designed for Tiffany Glass Company. It was one of the rare moments when word got out that Mr. Tiffany did not, himself, design every product his company’s advertising attributed to his elegant and extravagant hand.
In reality, as noted by a May 27, 1888 Plain Dealer article, Clara earned $20 a week when she started to work for Tiffany, and factory records indicate that she probably made little more than $35 a week, even after her salutary achievement in Paris for the firm, twelve years later.
Today, Clara Pierce Wolcott Driscoll Booth (1861-1944) continues to make headlines. A traveling exhibition of her designs for Tiffany visited five venues between 2007 and 2012, making stops in New York, The Netherlands, Germany, New Mexico, and Florida. “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls,” the fascinating catalog, was published in 2007. As Jeffrey Kastner commented in the New York Times on February 25 that year, the catalog by Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret K. Hofer records “the kind of detective story that historians fantasize about: one that gives credit where credit is long overdue and in the process rewrites what had previously seemed like settled history.”
Since 2007 Clara has also served as muse to more than one creative writer. Leading the Book Club list for the 25th Arts and Crafts Conference in Asheville, North Carolina (February 2012), was Susan Vreeland’s 2011 novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany. A second novel about Clara, Noon at Tiffany’s, by Echo Heron, was published in 2012. Both novels are works of historical and biographical fiction that speculate on and dramatize the inner workings of Clara’s creative, managerial, and romantic life.
A motion picture screenplay is sure to follow, for Clara was blessed not only with taste, intelligence, sound judgment, an eye for detail, and exceptional design ability, but with self-effacing good humor and empathy. She embodies what was then called the “New Woman,” a figure freed by the pioneering work of reformers like Elizabeth Cady, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frances Willard to explore previously closed career possibilities—and even to ride a bicycle! The source of all this excitement, one might predict, is Clara’s own self-confident personality.
Fortunately, while in New York, she dramatized her daily life in a series of descriptive and occasionally illustrated “round-robin” letters to relatives back in Ohio. Most of these are now archived in Kent State University Special Collections as part of the Kelso House Collection of the Brimfield Historical Society. (Another batch belongs to the Queens Historical Society, Flushing, New York.) This type of correspondence—remarks Linda D. Alexander, who is not only a relative of, but a popular speaker on Clara Driscoll—served as the family’s equivalent of chain letters, website, and cell phone, all in one. Each recipient would add her own contribution before forwarding the growing collection of letters to the next relative, until they arrived back home in Tallmadge. Clara’s animated narratives in these round-robin letters are the wellspring from which her present-day fame now flows.
Born December 15, 1861, Clara Pierce Wolcott was the eldest daughter of Elizur V. Wolcott and Fannie Pierce, and with her three sisters, was brought up in “the house on the hill,” at the residence still standing at 947 Northeast Avenue, in Tallmadge. Elizur and Fannie had met while students at the Tallmadge Academy, which held classes in the “Old Town Hall” building. While Elizur attended first Yale and then Andover Theological Seminary, Fannie wrote him frequently, and she attended Willoughby Female Seminary herself. They married after his return, Elizur’s poor health preventing him from becoming a missionary. Instead, he did a small amount of farming and also began teaching at Western Reserve Academy, in Hudson, where he gained the nickname “Tute” (for tutor).
Upon his death about 1874, when Clara was 12, Fannie turned to teaching as a livelihood. Thanks to theirs being a well-connected family, with relations to the Fenn and Severance clans of Cleveland, she was able to place Clara with relatives living near the excellent (and free) Central High School, located on Willson Avenue (now East 55th Street). The school’s early graduates included John D. Rockefeller and Marcus A. Hanna. Starting in 1878, probably about the time Clara arrived in Cleveland, a new Gothic-style building housed the school, and it was here that Clara undertook a curriculum that, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, consisted of “English, mathematics, natural science, bookkeeping, rhetoric, and philosophy.”
At Central High, Clara came under the influence of Harriet Louise Keeler (1846-1922), an Ohio naturalist who at one point served as school principal. In her December 6, 1906 round-robin letter, Clara describes a visit back to Central High, where she was warmly received by Miss Keeler, now known as the author of The Wild Flowers of Early Spring: A Study of One Hundred Flowers Growing in the Suburbs of Cleveland (1894) and Our Northern Shrubs and How to Identify Them: A Handbook for the Nature-Lover (1903). No doubt Clara’s affection for flowers and curiosity about the natural world was enhanced by her studies under Miss Keeler.
By enrolling in Cleveland’s new design school (precisely when is not known), Clara and her family tacitly accepted the notion expressed by James A. Garfield and quoted on the title page of the school’s 1883-84 prospectus: “The most valuable gift which can be bestowed on women is something to do, which they can do worthily and well and thereby maintain themselves” (CIA archives, scrapbook). Course work then included “Design—Ornamentation and its Analysis” and “Landscape from Nature.” At the outset, a two-year course of study warranted the receipt of a certificate, and a shorter period of study may have been sufficient for many students. Although it is unclear how long Clara remained enrolled, her portrait appears on a page of the CIA scrapbook titled “Class of 1884,” indicating she was a student that fall.
In any event, according to an April 18, 1886 article in the Plain Dealer, Clara Wolcott had by then taken a position as designer for C. S. Ransom and Company, a Cleveland-based manufacturer of Moorish-influenced fretwork panels to embellish home interiors, use as grilles, or incorporate into furniture. By the fall of 1888, Clara Wolcott arrived in New York to continue her studies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art School, which emphasized design for industry—and also quickly found employment at Tiffany Glass Company.
Little more than a year later—after having learned the intricacies of glass selection and cutting, but long before the introduction of leaded-glass lamps at Tiffany—she resigned from the firm to marry Francis S. Driscoll, which she did on November 28, 1889. Not only did Mr. Tiffany forbid the employment of married women in his firm, it was then widely held in the United States that the workplace was a male domain, except for those few socially approved occupations open to widowed or unmarried women.
When Mr. Driscoll died in February 1892, his widow approached Tiffany and was rehired, perhaps to hire and then oversee what was originally a small staff of female workers who comprised his Women’s Glass Cutting Department (informally known as “the Tiffany girls”). As Polly King noted, in an October 1894 article for Art Exchange, Tiffany shared the common belief that women were better suited than men for small hand work and possessed “natural decorative taste” and “keen perception of color.”
It turns out that, for Tiffany, Clara not only headed what the Daily News reporter called “the only shop of women glass cutters in the world.” She herself in time designed many of the most iconic Tiffany leaded-glass lamps—including most insect and floral motifs, from Dragonfly, Cobweb, and Butterfly to Wisteria, Poppy, Laburnum, Arrowhead, Geranium,and others.
With assistance from Tiffany designer Agnes Northrop and fellow Cleveland art school classmate Alice Carmen Gouvy (also hired by Tiffany), Clara even designed the innovative Flying Fish shade and Deep Sea mosaic and glass-jeweled base. Most researchers now believe it was Clara who originated the entire concept of kerosene- and then electric-powered lamps of leaded glass for Tiffany.
In addition, she created many of the company’s moderately priced desk and boudoir accessories, often in combinations of glass, bronze, and mosaic. Examples of this work surround her desk in the 1901 photograph reprinted by Kastner, depicting Clara at work, with “head workman” Joseph Briggs looking on.
Of this image, which Clara sent home to relatives, she writes: “the butterfly candle shade … is to be made of little iridescent glass butterflies flying around the candle flame, or rather appearing to fly by means of a network of gold wire made into lines of flight.… In the little picture I am working on the model of the milkweed powder box, another of my designs, that has been made in silver. Nearly everything that you see around is something that I have designed” (round-robin letter, January 1, 1902).
Equally impressive is the revelation that, as head of the women’s department, Clara Driscoll personally oversaw the execution not only of sophisticated designs for table lamps, which in the case of the Wisteria model required over 2000 individual pieces of glass—but of numerous monumental and costly commissions. These required the careful artistic selection, cutting, copper-foiling, and assembly of thousands of intricately outlined transparent, translucent or opaque glass pieces.
For Clara, the hand and eye work itself was rewarding and significant. “Indeed,” responded Mrs. Driscoll to the Daily News reporter in 1904, “this is rather difficult work, but when one has a fondness for a certain brand of industry, she does not pause when a difficulty must be overcome.… The work is a new departure for women, and I believe that they like it. For myself, I am exceedingly fond of it, much more so than of mere designing.” From her conversations with Mr. Tiffany and her training at the design school in Cleveland, Clara understood that the selection and placement of individual shards of glass—whether rippled, plain, gold, or curtained—was always crucial in one of the Tiffany lamps, windows, or mosaics, even in the smallest areas of a composition, in order to arrive at the most effective combination of textures, shadows, and hues.
One spectacular example of a grand-scale private commission is the interior of Cleveland’s world-famous Wade Chapel, located in Lake View Cemetery. Although the December 25, 1898 Plain Dealer quotes Louis Comfort Tiffany as saying of the project, “this will be the effort of my life,” drawing up the interior designs was actually the work of Frederick Wilson (1858-1932).
Furthermore, the Cleveland-based architectural firm Hubbel and Benes appear to have specified the interior themes, which are described in the same article: “The design will be a processional scheme, portraying the passage of life leading up to a beautifully designed window, at the rear of the chapel, symbolic of the resurrection.”
And it was Clara Wolcott Driscoll and her Women’s Glass Cutting Department who accomplished much of the actual work involved. Writing to her family on November 28, 1899 Clara remarked: “there are three hundred square feet of small pieces of glass to be accomplished. There is nothing like having enough work to do and feeling able to do so” (Queens Historical Society, Flushing, NY; quoted in A New Light 35).
For his part, Mr. Tiffany rewarded Clara by giving her ever greater responsibility, an expansive budget, considerable artistic freedom, invitations to his home studio, and in the summer of 1907, a deluxe three-month trip abroad to photograph and sketch in Brittany with Tiffany himself and several other artists from the firm. For as long as he was able, he defended her imaginative but costly designs against the more pragmatic assessments of his managerial staff and eventually a strike of the men’s department.
For some years, in Cleveland, Clara’s work with Tiffany was still celebrated at the art school and within its circle. Notably, marking the school’s 30th anniversary, she is mentioned in the 1912-13 circular in a “partial list of  former students who are achieving success.” Beside Clara’s name is appended this description: “Artist. Medal Paris Exposition.” As it happens, by that time, Clara’s career working with Louis Comfort Tiffany was finally over, and she had begun again to reinvent herself.
Between 1896 and 1897, she had accepted a second wedding engagement, this time to Edwin Waldo, the brother of the New York painter and decorator, George B. Waldo (1867-1904), with whom Clara was friendly. However, Edwin mysteriously disappeared on a trip to meet her family in Ohio, only to resurface five years later, without any explanation to or communication with Clara. The episode remains inexplicable today.
During this interlude, predictably, Clara again suspended her employment with Tiffany, who accepted her back for her third and most successful season with the firm, which ended only when she agreed to marry a dear friend, Edward A. Booth, in the fall of 1909. Before their engagement, they had lived for more than a decade in the same boarding house, and he had been her intellectual confidante, helping her with accounting work for Tiffany as needed, and participating in the same social circle.
During her 35-year marriage to Mr. Booth, as the inspiration struck, she decorated what the December 7, 1919 Plain Dealer describes as “scarves of gossamer silk shading from rose to orchid color, or from ivory to old gold and orange” (see Jessie C. Glasier, “Jewels and Textiles…”). The couple continued to alternate time between New York and a house in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, until in 1930 Edward retired from his position as manager for John G. Rollins, an import business, partly owing to the poor economy after the 1929 stock market crash. They retired then to Florida, keeping the Point Pleasant house as a summer home, and in this manner spent their later years until Clara died in 1944 and then Edward in 1950.
Only after her sister Emily Wolcott’s death in 1953 did the round-robin letters Emily had preserved return to the notice of relatives. Decades would pass until 1993, when Elizabeth A. Jones Yeargin (another relative) transcribed a sampling from the letters for her work on Pierce and Wolcott genealogy, which she self-published as a bound typescript titled The Pierce and Wolcott Letters. Eventually, these letters came to light, and seized the imagination of both scholars and novelists.
Despite her origin in rural Ohio and the unlikelihood of success springing from so modest a beginning, Clara took advantage of her many opportunities and came to enjoy a wealth of accomplishment—for she managed to find, despite the gendered expectations of her age, not only the satisfaction of seeing one’s creative ideas executed with care and in the finest of materials, but the equally profound experience of a loving marriage and a home of one’s own.
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