Leading Tiffany Design Into The 21st Century
In 1979 when Tiffany & Co. hired John Loring as design director, chairman and principal owner, Walter Hoving gave him clear direction: “Lead Tiffany design into the 21st century.”
A prolific artist and writer on the arts whose works are in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as those of the Chicago Art Institute and Boston Museum of Art amongst many others, Loring took Hoving’s challenge to heart. He moved forward with the “back to basics” approach he had mastered in the world of American art – an approach he notes was propounded by Tiffany’s founder Charles Lewis Tiffany (father of Louis Comfort Tiffany) when he launched the firm in 1837 on a capital investment of $1,000.
“There can be no compromise on the quality of design or on the quality of materials and craftsmanship. You can’t give an inch,” Loring says. And clearly that pronouncement still works. Tiffany & Co. expanded from a seven-store, $70 million operation in the 1970s to the vast network of more than 200 stores in more than 20 countries with annual sales of $3.5 billion that it is today.
Loring was born in Chicago in 1939 to an English father and an American mother. After graduating from Yale and post graduate studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he began his career in luxury goods at 27 as co-owner and manager of an Yves Saint Laurent in Venice, Italy. Some years later and back in New York where he was in the “stable” of the Pace Gallery and writing for a number of art and design magazines, he got a call from Van Day Truex, his predecessor at Tiffany’s who planned to retire after 25 years as design director.
“I went to a design world ‘power lunch’ with Van where there were all the ‘old sorcerers’ of American design – Billy Baldwin, Albert Hadley, Kenneth Jay Lane and so on. I suggested a few people in the room who might be able to take over from Van. He said they were ‘ridiculous’ suggestions and could never do his job.’ Loring recalls, “I guess he was hinting that he wanted me.”
A phone call later that day from legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert sealed the deal.
She was never indirect. “When I saw you talking to Van at lunch today, I realized that you’re the only right person for that job at Tiffany’s. You go get that job!” (End of conversation.) He immediately called Truex to pursue the position.
Seriously Back to Basics
As design director for 30 years, Loring dwelt at the heart and nerve center of the firm. At the start, working with Walter Hoving’s long-time friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – who was then an editor at Doubleday – he began a series of books (there are now 21 of them) detailing Tiffany’s role in the progress of design, jewelry, luxury goods, timepieces, sports trophies and the decorative arts. He worked with his illustrious editor and friend for 14 years producing the first six volumes of the series. “They’re really more about the progress of American society over 150 years than about Tiffany’s,” she liked to note. Perusing the previously unexplored Tiffany archive of over 1.3 million drawings, photos and other documents, she once observed that the resource was so unlimited that “I suppose at 80 we’ll be writing a book called ‘Tiffany Mushrooms’.”
Throughout his Tiffany career, Loring maintained the “back to basics” tenet in the design department. “You don’t start off with a ‘sophisticated’ concept, but rather with simple symbols or markings or details of nature that are understood by everyone whatever their culture. Ideas that I like to say ‘fall like rain on everyone’. Sophisticated concepts don’t travel. The simplicity factor was Charles Lewis Tiffany’s explicitly stated foundation of his worldwide success in the 19th century. It’s still ours today. Simply-stated design finds immediate acceptance. It’s recognizable. People say to themselves, ‘That can be a part of me.’”
Peretti and Picasso
Elsa Peretti’s iconic “Floating Heart”, “Teardrop”, “Bean”, “Bone Cuffs” and “Diamonds-by-the-Yard” at Tiffany’s are masterpieces of refinement and simplicity, Loring maintains, and have brought a natural sensuality and fluidity to jewelry that changed the course of jewelry design and showed the way into the 21st century. Paloma Picasso’s “X”s and graffiti “Scribbles” moved that course forward. (Loring brought his friend from his Paris years, Paloma Picasso – whom he admired for “her imagination, talent and personal presence” – to Tiffany’s in 1980.) His own iconic designs for the Tiffany“Atlas” watch and the “Atlas” jewelry collection exhibit the same dedication to the simplicity of “basics”.
To this day, Loring has a deep emotional attachment to the firm. “Tiffany never gets old,” he says. “I still get a rush of excitement whenever I enter a Tiffany store anywhere in the world – as though it’s the first time!” And he still delights in any gift in the Tiffany signature Blue Box.
Tied with its white satin bow
Ensconced in his 1920’s “Med-Rev” bungalow in the historic section of West Palm Beach, Florida, Loring retired – sort of – in 2009 but still holds the title of “design director emeritus, meaning, “I’ll be back at the office in New York on Monday.”