While traveling this week, I found myself blown into the Windy City. When I’m in Chicago, I always try to visit the Art Institute. The museum currently boasts an excellent exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent, but it also has numerous other delightful and surprising exhibits. The Miniature Rooms by Narcissa Thorne is certainly a highlight for me as an architect, and it now tops my list of favorite galleries.
The scope and rigor is stunning and borders on unbelievable; it is certainly in another league altogether when compared to architectural models I have constructed in the past. Mrs. Thorne’s patronage for the arts stemmed from inspiring interior design–both imagined and real–from around the world. However, she first began to construct miniatures after receiving trinkets and baubles from her uncle who served as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Thorne’s childhood sweetheart, James Ward Thorne, was an heir to the Montgomery Ward department store fortune. Due to his untimely death, the fortune, and high unemployment during the Great Depression, Narcissa was able to hire expert craftsmen. Craftsmanship aside, the enormous effort and care taken to research historical precedent for the loving portrayal of these period rooms is obvious.
To our 21st century eyes, these rooms may seem like a historic catalogue of styles. It’s important to remember that several spaces were exploring the current modern trends of the day. Rooms from the 1930s to 1940 showcase the sleek lines, new taste, and contemporary sensibilities of the Art Deco movement. Her most famous works are reconstructions of upper-class European and American homes crafted at one-inch-to-one-foot scale.
Perhaps my favorite feature of these rooms are the adjoining ancillary spaces. Open doors reveal fully conceived rooms to the side. Some of these rooms, while complete, can only be viewed by an inch-wide doorway opening. It makes the viewer appreciate the effort all the more. They also spark the imagination. What does the rest of the house look like? Where does the next room lead? What would I find at the top of the staircase?
Similarly, open windows and doors reveal exterior spaces, too. Gardens with flowering bushes, leafy trees, cobbled paths, and gates with hinges offer an extraordinary sense of place. Expertly rendered backgrounds suggest an atmospheric perspective which tricks the eye into seeing a greater sense of depth. Despite the cost and timely process required to complete each set, Mrs. Thorne never sought to be paid for her work.
In addition to the craft of the rooms, I appreciate and want to call attention to the careful and intentional lighting design. The appearance of natural daylight pours in from the tall windows, and artificial lighting creeps in from open doors. This establishes a comfortable, warm, and very familiar atmosphere.
These spaces go beyond a merely academic architectural exercise and explore a representation of daily life. Tiny tea cups, fresh fruit on the table, cabinet doors left ajar, a toy train abandoned on the floor-–to me, this is the heart and soul of the exhibit. Simply put, these rooms are delightful. They bring historic spaces and classic designs to a scale that can be enjoyed by the common man–not just learned historians and architects.