Game of Thornes
March 25, 2015 7:20 PM   Subscribe

A popular exhibit at the Art Intitute of Chicago is the Thorne Rooms, tiny historically accurate scale models of living spaces from all over the world.

The Thorne Rooms are the work of Narcissa Niblack Thorne, widow of one of the heirs of the Montgomery Ward fortune, who hired skilled artisans, collected miniatures, and wove period rugs for the rooms.
The AIC website has a gallery of all the rooms, or you can watch a video tour.

The Phoenix Art Museum and Knoxville Museum of Art also have some Thorne Rooms on display, and the occasional diorama will pop up for sale to the public.

Author Spins Love Of Chicago’s Thorne Rooms Into Children’s Book Series

Game of Thornes

My personal favorite: California Hallway 1940 A37.
posted by bq (15 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I love this collection. I make sure to go see the Miniatures and the paperweights collection every time I'm back in Chicago. Thanks for the post!
posted by Arbac at 7:34 PM on March 25, 2015

The New Mexico one is spot on - I wasn't expecting anything that "rustic."
posted by mon-ma-tron at 7:57 PM on March 25, 2015

I first saw the Thorne Rooms as a little kid and they blew my mind.

Years later when I got to Boston for college, I mooched downtown one day and applied for a card at the Boston Public Library. Breathing through my mouth because of the smell of urine, I went from the BPL's newer building into the older one. Up a flight of stairs, I found another, similar set of teensy, tiny dioramas, easily a match for the Thorne Rooms. They were built by one Louise Stimson, as described here:

I can't find much else about them online besides this guide book mention in Google Books, but I know I didn't imagine these.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:44 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Thorne Rooms are probably one of my five favorite things in my hometown. Thanks for this post.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:56 PM on March 25, 2015

Used to get into Chicago at least annually as a kid, before I lived there as an adult, and we often saw these. I found them fascinating as a very young boy, but of course saw them more as just elaborate dollhouses at some point, and it wasn't until later that i understood they weren't just the obsession of a dotty spinster (really, a wife and then widow) with too much money and/or time, but actually very important in the history of interior design. I was humbled that I had grown to dismiss them.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Philadelphian Museum of Art has tons of exhibition galleries (similar to these) replicating different rooms in rich people's homes throughout space/time on earth. It would be neat if these galleries were interspersed with replicas of poor people's, working class people's, city/country people's homes...
posted by nikoniko at 12:52 AM on March 26, 2015

I’d not heard of these exquisite things before : many thanks for the post. How are these displayed? Can one only look into them as the camera does in these photos? Or do the other windows allow different perspectives? Are they lit by natural or artificial light? Part of me would love to see a kitten rampaging through them…

I’m reminded of the French artist Charles Matton’s Boîtes , boxes in which he painstakingly created miniature reproductions (or re-imaginings) of artists’s studios, hotel lobbies, libraries and the like.
posted by misteraitch at 4:43 AM on March 26, 2015

I’d not heard of these exquisite things before : many thanks for the post. How are these displayed? Can one only look into them as the camera does in these photos? Or do the other windows allow different perspectives? Are they lit by natural or artificial light?

They're in a room in the lower level of the museum; they're inset into the wall at about eye level (with a little step running along the side for the kids). The light is artificial, but very good- the light streaming in from the windows looks quite authentic.

My favorite part about them is that they're are often rooms "off to the side" of the main room, and those are ridiculously decorated too. Like, if you look at the Massachusetts Dining room here, you can see a hallway off to the left, with it's own carpet on the floor, etc. This often includes rooms that you can barely see peering in from one side. The outsides are also landscaped appropriately-- one room even has a view of the Eiffel Tower.

For crazy levels of detail, however, you can't beat the harp. Harps have colored strings to help the players; they made sure that the ones on the miniature matched exactly.

They also decorate them for the holidays; the imaginary residents of the California Hallway are Jewish.
posted by damayanti at 5:13 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

The scale and "gravity" of the materials in the Thorne Rooms is simply amazing. Most miniatures lose the effect because fabrics often retain their "real world" drape and stiffness, items and details that would look fragile or delicate in real-world scale look just a bit bulky, objects that would have a visual weight to them (like a large dining table, for instance) never quite seem to have the requisite heft, and details like wood grain are often just enough out of scale.

The Thorne Rooms don't have these problems. The scale and apparent weight of the objects and materials is right on. They are an amazing thing to see. Properly lit and photographed, they would easily pass for actual human-scale rooms.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:18 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

When my young nieces came to visit me for the first time (I think they were like nine and eleven years old ), I was super excited to crack open their little worlds and take them to museums, as they'd never seen one—they're from a very small, rural town in another state—and art/architecture was the reason I'd moved here. They were crestfallen when they heard they'd be doing something sooo incredibly boring. Blechhk! A museum?!

So the first stop inside the AIC, of course, was the Thorne Miniature Rooms—I knew they loved their dollhouses. They were so surprised by how cool that exhibition was, I don't think I could have stopped them from exploring the rest of the museum after that. They had no idea art could be so cool and seemingly made just for them.

They're older now, and their tastes have developed over the years to include a decent appreciation of Chagall, Dali, and Klee, among other artists, but the Thorne exhibition is where it all started for them; it opened them up to exploring new things they thought they could never be interested in, and they'll tell you that today. Those rooms are pretty powerful—gateway art, indeed.
posted by heyho at 5:57 AM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I lost an HOUR in there last time I was in Chicago. Mesmerizing.
posted by The Whelk at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2015

This one is my favorite, not for the least reason that when I was last there with my nephew, he said "Do you live there?"
posted by crush-onastick at 12:31 PM on March 26, 2015

I've lived in Chicago for ten years now and finally went to see this exhibit because of this post. Thanks!
posted by travertina at 8:03 AM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

This one is my favorite,

Interesting - your flickr photo of the model looks like a security cam of an actual room.
posted by aught at 9:52 AM on March 27, 2015

so it does! aught, i never noticed until you said that! the miniatures are truly remarkable in their true to lifeness.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:52 PM on March 27, 2015

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