If you’d like to experience a few moments surrounded by the splendors of the Gilded Age in America, climb the staircase inside the Carnegie Mansion (Cooper Hewitt) and enter another world. As a tribute to the mansion’s second-floor renovation, Cooper Hewitt mined its own collection and borrowed key pieces as part of the installation, Passion for the Exotic: Louis Comfort Tiffany and Lockwood de Forest, closing March 26.
You’ll find yourself in a quiet mystical room that served as the Carnegie family library when it was first designed in 1902 by Lockwood de Forest, a superstar of the Aesthetic movement. The Smithsonian has brought the room back to its original glory, carved teak, stenciled walls, and all.
Paying tribute to Mr. Carnegie’s passion for all things Tiffany, the curators have brought out their lamps, lit them up, and borrowed a magnificent turtleback Tiffany chandelier that is close to original. The effect of low light emanating through all the iridescent glass and illuminating the walls and built-in cabinet is unusually magical.
The design triumph is even more interesting when you think that at the time, 92 percent of New Yorkers did not even have electricity. So, this installation is not only beautiful, but stands as a 1902 example of cutting-edge technology and avant-garde design.
So, how did this seemingly perfect collaboration interior embellishment, light, and the exotic happen? De Forest and Tiffany, who began working together in the 1880s, both shared a passion for the intricate designs of the Middle East and India. Each globetrotter had seen Indian interiors firsthand and felt their American design practices would benefit from exotic infusions.
Tiffany and de Forest once were business partners, but after that dissolved, they kept working together on a project-by-project basis. De Forest brokered a deal with a workshop in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, to manufacture decorative teak wood and brass panels that he designed for his own and Tiffany’s interior-design clients.
So the installation at the Cooper Hewitt is your chance to experience the magic of one of America’s great design collaborations.
To give the room a unique aesthetic glow, De Forest stenciled the wall in yellow lacquer to create an illusion that he associated with Indian screens. The teak details, inspired by Indian design, and the built-in cabinet inside Mr. Carnegie’s room came from the Gujarat workshop.
The Teak Room is currently the most complete De Forest interior still in existence in the site for which it was created. Seeing this work, lit by the glow of the Tiffany lamps and decorated with other Tiffany decorative objects, is a must.
And when you climb the grant staircase to the second floor, you can also take advantage of the interactive display at the top of the stairs, which is loaded with history about the mansion and photos showing the original interiors.
If you want to soak in more of Tiffany’s prowess, watch Ben Macklowe’s Cooper Hewitt livestream on the master’s background, influences, technology, and business and find out what happened to the Tiffany-designed rooms at the White House: