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California Living Room, 1850-1875
The Art Institute of Chicago

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Meticulous and miniature: The Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute

Tiny Homes may be all the rage today but the microscopic construction of the Thorne Rooms, takes small to a whole new level

At the base of the Grand Staircase just inside the entrance to Chicago’s world-famous art museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, lies the city’s biggest (and most beloved) collection of the minuscule, The Thorne Miniature Rooms. Sixty-eight tiny recreations of European, American, and Asian interiors representing styles ranging from the 13th century to the 1940s. Built on a scale of one inch to one foot, each Thorne Room is a pint-sized portal to the past. We recently met up with Lindsay Mican Morgan, the current keeper of the Thorne Rooms, to learn a little bit more about the scale models.

The Thorne rooms on view at the Art Institute today were constructed between 1932 and 1940 by a team of master craftsmen working under the watchful and meticulous eye of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, the artist and Chicago art patron for which they are named. From her studio on Oak Street in the Near North Side, it is estimated that Mrs. Thorne and her team produced 99 of these miniature rooms, sixty-eight of which were gifted to the Institute in 1941. Several museums in the U.S. now house collections of Thorne Rooms but Mican assures us that the rooms at the Art Institute are "the perfection of Mrs. Thorne’s craft."

Georgia Double Parlor, c. 1850
The Art Institute of Chicago

More than thirty people were employed in the construction of the Thorne Rooms on display. Sought-out by Mrs. Thorne herself to produce minute replicas of everything from period furniture and draperies to the individual pieces of fruit that fill the (real) silver bowl in the New Mexico Dining Room. Objects in the Thorne Rooms are not just made to look like tiny versions of their everyday counterparts, they are tiny versions of their everyday counterparts. That crystal chandelier in the Georgian Double Parlor? It’s made of genuine crystal. The stamp-sized artworks in the California Hallway? Original works of art that Mrs. Thorne commissioned specifically for this 1940s San Franciscan room. Included, among others, are two bronze sculptures by American sculptor John Storrs, and paintings by Léger, Ozenfant, Survage, and Hildreth Meière. Mrs. Thorne spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars producing each room and employed only the best and most skilled workers available. Seventy-five years later, the quality and craftsmanship of the miniatures still astounds visitors. "She just wouldn’t have been able to do this today," says Mican.

New Mexcio Dining Room, c. 1940
The Art Institute of Chicago

In addition to the permanent collection, two loan rooms are also currently on display. One is a replica of the interior of a Pullman Observation Car, circa 1893, built by the son of one of Mrs. Thorne’s former employees. The other is a miniature version of the Breakfast Room at Frank Lloyd Wright’s William Martin House in Oak Park, Illinois. Both have been extremely popular additions to the exhibition and make up for the lack of Chicago-related rooms in the rest of the collection. Unfortunately "Chicago was not considered the height of fashion" when Mrs. Thorne was producing her miniatures and is not represented in the original family of rooms. In the future, the museum plans to rotate other rooms on loan in and out of the exhibition space and hopes to find more miniatures with local and regional ties.

French Provincial Bedroom of the Louis XV Period, 18th Century
The Art Institute of Chicago

Overall, the rooms remain one of the most popular and most visited permanent collections on view at the Art Institute with thousands of visitors per year from all over the world. Some come specifically to see the miniatures while others simply wander in on their way to the restrooms. No one leaves disappointed. Different from the usual works found in an art museum, "The Thorne Rooms are inviting, they let you use your sense of imagination. You can imagine yourself in them, imagine shrinking down and what you would do in each room. They’re fun," says Mican. Understandably, the rooms are popular with all age groups and are detailed enough that multiple viewings are always rewarded. It is very common for Mican to speak with parents and grandparents who have brought their children to the museum to see the same miniatures they fell in love with when they were kids.

French Hall of the Louis XII Period, c. 1500
The Art Institute of Chicago

For someone who has spent such a large amount of time in this wee world underneath the museum herself, Mican is hard-pressed to identify a favorite room. "Everyone asks that and it’s really hard to pick. I feel like I should say something really fashionable, like this 1930s Modern English Drawing Room. It’s stunning and I really do love it but I think I have a soft spot for the kitchens. All the little pots and pans and the tchotchkes and accessories, those are my favorites."

French Bedroom, Late 16th Century
The Art Institute of Chicago
Detail, French Bedroom, Late 16th Century
The Art Institute of Chicago

The Thorne Rooms can be visited during regular museum hours, daily 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Thursdays until 8:00 p.m. Pick up an audio guide for your visit or download the Art Institute of Chicago’s Official iOS App to explore the history of the Thorne Rooms yourself with Lindsay Mican Morgan.

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