History Lesson

Thorne Miniature Rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago


We know what it takes to craft window treatments for pretty much any type of room, from ultra modern to those in listed historical buildings. But the one space we’ve never explored is that of miniatures. Which is why we, like so many others, are completely blown away by the design, including window treatments, of the Thorne Rooms. There are over a hundred of these miniature masterpieces, with the majority on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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One of Torne's few modern interiors, featuring original art she commissioned from renowned artists including Fernand Leger and Amadée Ozenfant, as well as a studio pottery pieces by Gertrud Natzler. Photo courtesy of Rima Suqi; the rest were provided by the Art Institute of Chicago.

A little background. The rooms were designed by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (1882-1966), an Indiana native who traveled the world with her husband, James Thorne (one of the heirs to the Montgomery Ward fortune), and collected antique miniatures. She was, it seems, a bit of a hoarder; the couple’s Lake Shore Drive apartment was said to be chock full of these pieces, many from a specific Parisian dealer whose identity she took to the grave.

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New Hampshire Dining Room, 1760

In 1930 she began the painstaking process of crafting these rooms from a studio on Oak Street. They document over three centuries of English, French, Asian and American interiors, down to the art and accessories. It was the depression, and Thorne was able to give much needed work to architects and interior designers who helped create sketches and floor plans, as well as local craftsmen who would normally work on human-scaled spaces. These included Edwin Hill Clark, the architect of her own home in Lake Forest and designer of the library in her Chicago apartment. No detail was left untouched. Her New York Times obituary mentions a “a late 18 th century dining room...complete with silver service and knife boxes.” And a Louis XVI salon with “copies of paintings by Fragonard...and a tea set of old Sevres porcelain.” Textiles and carpets were made by the Needlework Guild of Chicago.

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Virginia Drawing Room, 1754

The public first got a peek at 30 of these wonders at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, they then traveled to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and finally to the American Art Today building at the New York World’s Fair in 1940. The rooms were a huge hit -- so much so that Queen Mary asked Thorne to create, and personally deliver, a miniature of a room at Windsor Castle to mark the coronation of Edward VIII.

IBM purchased 29 of the original rooms in 1942 and they toured for several decades before being sold. Twenty of those are on view at the Phoenix Art museum; 9 are at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee, where IBM was based. The 68 that are on view at the Art Institute were created in the late 1930s and early 1940s and donated by Thorne herself to the museum.

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German Sitting Room of the Biedermeier

More information and imagery at the Art Institute of Chicago site, and the Phoenix Art Museum. The rooms are also immortalized in a book, Miniature Rooms, by Fannia Weingartner, with an introduction by Bruce Hatton Boyer.