Mrs. James Ward Thorne traveled a lot, seeking something, and found her expression in the creation of miniature rooms, The Thorne rooms.
At a very young age Miss Narcissa Niblack started collecting antique miniatures, having received many of them from her uncle, a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy.
In 1901, Miss Niblack married her childhood sweetheart James Ward Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward department store fortune.
Once married, Mr. and Mrs. Thorne did a lot of traveling throughout Europe, and on those numerous trips she expanded her collection of miniatures and began to study architectural history.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Mrs. Thorne constructed the first in her series of 100 miniature rooms, all of which were designed in a faithfully historical style.
For reasons of continuity, she decided to work almost exclusively at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot (1:12) which, in the end, became a standard in the miniature industry.
Mrs. Thorne maintained full control over the construction of the rooms, working as the executive or forewoman for each project — the equivalent, more or less, of constructing an elaborate stage set or a real house.
For Mrs. Thorne, quality was paramount. She insisted her miniature furniture be made from the same kind of wood as the originals, and that the detail in the wood grain must match the scale of the objects.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a special wing dedicated to sixty-eight of The Thorne Rooms, designed between 1937 and 1940, portraying European as well as American interiors and covering a period from the 13th century up until 1940.
While the rooms were the inspiration of one woman, they were the work of an entire team, all of whom were crucial to the process:
Eugene J. Kupjack, a model maker, made most of the furniture.
Claus O. Brandell, a mechanical engineer, was responsible for technical solutions.
Alfons Weber of Hamburg, a wood carver, did the stucco work and the carvings.
Edwin Hill Clark, a Chicago architect, drew up the blueprints.
Lee Meisinger, a graduate of the Art Institute, executed the textile pieces, including the carpets, curtains, and the petit point needlework (at forty stitches to the inch!).
The sixty-eight rooms can be seen, or rather admired, in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago. They have been built into the walls behind panes of glass, then embedded in wooden frames, like peep-show boxes. Each room recedes back into the wall, appearing to be a theatrical set or a film scene, but without the actors.
So simple: space — atmosphere — culture — time.
One falls into a wonderful, miraculous world, an enrapturing and captivating experience — to be delighted by different scenarios: the Art Deco room, the English, French, Japanese, and Mexican rooms. Not to mention the railway compartment or the many grand entryways where open doors and staircases give hints of other, yet to be seen spaces.
And the countless objects, the furniture, lamps, chandeliers, vases, pictures, stucco works, bouquets of flowers, curtains, knickknacks, dolls, embroideries, and on and on.
It’s the absolute quintessence.
Frozen in time.
We are looking at original rooms, perfectly matched up (but small-sized).
Aside from the fascination of all the miniature objects and the overall design of the rooms, it is a kind of poetry.
Taken as a whole, the rooms just knock you out; you can contemplate, almost endlessly, room by room, each one a new surprise. And at the end of it all you find that you are completely fulfilled and happy.
Like a treasure hunter who has found a treasure.
Thank you Mrs. Thorne.
Sonnhild Kestler is a textile designer and hand-screen printer whose work emphasizes dynamic pattern compositions, vibrant color, and ornate graphics. Along with textiles for interiors, Kestler creates home and fashion accessories for her Zürich-based label, S.K. Hand-Druck.
Images: Photography by Christine Munz.