The Thorne Miniature Rooms at Art Institute of Chicago

The Thorne Miniature Rooms at Art Institute of Chicago

The Sixty-Eight Rooms

When my daughter was in 4th-6th grades, we had a summer book club for her and her friends. The girls would read a book and then get together to discuss it, with related snacks and activities. One of the hands-down favorite books we read was The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone.  The book took place inside the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Thorne Miniature Rooms. These 68 individual rooms done in miniature depict different time periods and different countries. The kids in the story find a magic way to shrink down to an appropriate size to explore the rooms.

I confess, I enjoyed the book as much as the girls did! So, when planning my birthday trip to Chicago, I knew that I had to go see the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The rooms are housed on the lower level of the Art Institute of Chicago, a large and impressive building that contains both art school and museum. It was first built in 1893 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Two huge bronze lions flank the main entrance, where banners also hang to announce the latest exhibits.

Thorne Miniature rooms art institute of chicago

The Institute has expanded several times over the years, most recently with the addition of a modern art wing in 2009. That expansion brought the size of the Art Institute to almost 1 million square feet, making it the second largest art museum in the USA. (The first is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

I’m sure there were wonderful things to look at as we entered the building, but I was intensely focused on the reason we had gone there. We headed straight downstairs for the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

According the museum’s web site, “The 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s. Painstakingly constructed on a scale of one inch to one foot, these fascinating models were conceived by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago and constructed between 1932 and 1940 by master craftsmen according to her specifications.”

When you enter the room containing the Thorne Miniature Rooms, you quickly notice a couple of things. First, the rooms are all set into the wall with a wooden frame around them. A plaque underneath informs visitors of the room’s number, country, and time period. Second, there is a platform about 8 inches high and 12 inches deep running the length of the walls underneath the rooms.  It didn’t take long to discover the reason for the platform.  Thanks to the success of the children’s novels, kids were flocking to the museum to see the rooms.  The platform was an easy way for them to peek inside each one.

The 68 Rooms

The amount of detail in the rooms is nothing short of amazing. And each room had details that made it seem not just a miniature room, but a room that someone actually lived in and used. Eyeglasses left on a table, a toy on the floor, an unfinished bit of needlework or a chess game in progress… these were the touches that made an artistic world in miniature become extraordinary.

The largest of the rooms, and also the first one you are likely to see when you enter the exhibit, is the 13th Century English Roman Catholic Church. It is impressive in its size and deceptively so – you almost forget that the scale is one inch to one foot. Turn the corner, though, and you will enter a world that is incredibly small.

With a few exceptions, the 68 miniature rooms fit into three geographical categories: English, French, and American. (The exceptions are one German room, one Chinese room, and one Japanese room.) If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably know I’m a hopeless Anglophile, so needless to say the English rooms were my favorites. I particularly loved the English Great Hall from the late Tudor period (1550-1603):

thorne miniature rooms english great hall late tudor period chicago

This room was just amazing – the leaded windows in particular reminded me of ones I had seen at Warwick Castle that featured coats of arms of noble families.

And speaking of windows… I should point out that these rooms are constructed the same way their life size versions would be.  Doors open onto other rooms or to the outside, windows provide views of a garden or other buildings. And those exterior areas were designed with every bit as much authentic detail as the interior.

For instance, I loved how we were able to get a peek at beautiful garden outside the English Dining Room from the Georgian Period (1770-1790):

thorne miniature rooms chicago english dining room georgian period

And check out the California Living Room from 1934-1940:

thorne miniature rooms chicago california living room 1934-1940

Not only do we look through the entire expanse of the room, we can also see the beautiful tile-accented stairs leading up to a second floor as well as  what is probably the main entrance to the house through two open doorways.  And notice how the light is hitting the bricks there.  It looks so realistic!

And I thought this vignette, on the left side of the Cape Cod Living Room, was just beautiful:

thorne miniature rooms chicago cape cod living room 1750-1850

First of all, the light coming through the window! Are you thinking it must be morning, and what a great spot to enjoy a cup of coffee? I was! Now, the photo is a little dark, but can you see the eyeglasses sitting there on the table? How about the spoons next to the teacups? The glasses were probably less than 1/2 inch across, and the spoons were about 1/2 inch long. Amazing.

And how about this English cottage kitchen from the Queen Anne Period (1702-1714):

thorne miniature rooms chicago english cottage kitchen queen anne period style

Again, beautiful light streaming through the window.  Now take in the other details.  Hanging over the table is a birdcage with a bird in it. The plates on the left measure only about 1/2 inch in diameter, but actually have an intricate pattern painted on them.

The English Drawing Room from the Victorian Era contains a portrait of Queen Victoria that is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 inch, yet is instantly recognizable. Can you spot it? It’s on the right side of the table.

thorne miniature rooms chicago english drawing room victorian era

As I walked along, peering into the rooms and marveling over the details, I was taking pictures and trying my best to do so without any reflection or glare. I wanted each photograph to look like I had taken it from inside the room. When I got to the French Dining Room from the Louis XIV Period (1660-1700), I caught a movement in my peripheral vision that startled me. Upon closer scrutiny, I realized that it was from a mirror hanging over the fireplace. So I decided to have some fun:

thorne miniature rooms chicago French Dining Room Louis XIV Period 1660-1700
C’est un géant!

Now, if haven’t already marveled at how detailed these miniature rooms are, consider the French Salon of the Louis XVI period (circa 1780):

thorne miniature rooms chicago french salon louis xvi 1780 key in desk

Do you see the key sticking out of the desk leaf, above the chair seat? Well, the museum guide told us that the key is not just decorative – it actually works and can lock the desk.  I couldn’t believe it – it was so tiny – just 1/6 of an inch or so, perhaps less!

I went through the exhibit and looked at every room at least twice.  With each pass I noticed new details I hadn’t seen before.  This is definitely the sort of exhibit you could revisit again and again and have a new experience each time.

The Other Rooms

Yes, there are others!  A total of 100 rooms done by Mrs. Thorne are on display today. Twenty are in the Phoenix Art Museum, and nine in the Knoxville Museum of Art. The remaining two are at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, and the Kaye Miniature Museum in Los Angeles. In addition to these, a bar that Thorne auctioned off for charity in the 1950s is at the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.

I highly recommend visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and especially checking out the Thorne Miniature Rooms. They provide an amazing example of quality craftsmanship, the history of design and decor, and the techniques of making items in miniature.  The next time you’re in Chicago, check it out!

 

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