If you played with dolls as a child, you probably remember all their little doll-sized accessories. Their mini shoes, bags, clothes, and of course, their mini furniture in their mini dollhouse. Everything was just their size, and it was all so detailed. There’s something incredibly charming about miniatures, isn’t there?
The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago has built its legacy on that childhood sense of charm and magic. These painstakingly crafted dollhouse-like rooms created by one woman have made their way into the hearts of the young (and the young at heart) for generations. They’ve even inspired a middle-grade children’s book series with a fantastical world all their own. As part of Chicago’s larger collection of interesting, eclectic, and unique art that has become synonymous with the city, the Thorne Miniature Rooms, though tiny, contain depths that reach further than expected.
Who made the Thorne Miniature Rooms?
The Thorne Rooms get their name from their creator, Narcissa Niblack Thorne (b. 1882, d. 1966). Originally from Vincennes, Indiana, Thorne frequently traveled across Europe and Asia. During her travels, she collected numerous pieces of miniature furniture that reminded her of her childhood dollhouses. Thorne needed somewhere to house the collection of tiny objects she’d amassed. Beginning in 1930, Thorne commissioned artisan craftsmen from the Needlework Guild of Chicago to create approximately 100 shoe-box-sized miniature rooms on a 1:12 scale, a common ratio for dollhouses.
Each miniature room is themed around a specific period and region from the 13th to the 20th centuries, and the interior design of the rooms reflects that accordingly. Thorne hoped that her miniature rooms “could substitute for costly and space-consuming full-scale period rooms that museums across the country were beginning to acquire”, according to the Phoenix Art Museum. Represented ages and locations include mid-1600s England, mid to late 1700s New Hampshire, 1800s Massachusetts, and 1940s New Mexico.
Of the 100 rooms created, 68 are currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, 20 reside at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, and nine are housed at the Knoxville Museum of Art. According to Atlas Obscura, the Thorne Miniatures Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago is “thought to be the largest collection of miniature rooms in the world”.
For the young and the young at heart
Immersed into the carpeted exhibit room within the lower level of the Art Institute of Chicago, and peering into the glass cases that hold each Miniature Room, it’s impossible not to let the imagination run wild. Could you picture yourself exploring these tiny dioramas, taking in each miniature plate or book? Perhaps the inhabitants are fairies or elves who’ve just stepped out for a moment, leaving their space frozen in a moment in time. The Thorne Miniature Rooms feel lived in—especially when they are decorated for the season during holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah.
The Art Institute of Chicago notes that the result of Thorne’s impressive, wildly detailed creation is “two parts fantasy, one part history”. That fantastical aspect is enticing to visitors of all ages, but appeals particularly to children. The exhibition room has been designed to be accessible to kids. It features a ledge for younger viewers to stand on, allowing them to see the Miniature Rooms up close. It’s not uncommon for parents and grandparents who saw the Thorne Rooms when they were young to bring their own children to the exhibit, to experience the magic just as they did. In a 2016 article for Curbed Chicago, Lindsay Mican Morgan, keeper of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, explained that “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”.
The Thorne Miniatures Rooms are a whimsical combination of real-world interior design and childlike wonder. They’re something out of a storybook. In fact, one author has based a fantasy children’s book series around the Thorne Rooms and her own nostalgic love for them.
A legacy worth telling stories about
“Almost everybody who has grown up in Chicago knows about the Thorne Rooms,” reads the description of Marianne Malone’s book The Sixty-Eight Rooms. “Housed deep inside the Chicago Art Institute, they are a collection of 68 exquisitely crafted miniature rooms. Each room is set in a different historic period, and every detail is perfect. Some might even say, the rooms are magic”.
Published in 2011 and geared toward kids aged eight to twelve, The Sixty-Eight Rooms follows 6th graders Ruthie and Jack. On a field trip to the Thorne Miniature Rooms, they discover a magical key that shrinks them down to scale and allows them to enter each of the titular 68 rooms, transporting them back in time to the room’s corresponding period and region.
Malone, a former art teacher who was born and raised in the Chicago area, says on her website that the Thorne Rooms “turned [her] into a writer when [she] could no longer ignore the stories they planted in [her] head”. Malone grew up visiting the Thorne Rooms and gained a new appreciation for them after teaching her students about them during her career. Having explored the possibilities of what it would be like to be the same size as these miniatures through fiction, Malone wishes the premise of her book could be reality: "I've never been able to go into [the Thorne Rooms] and not think about shrinking and going outside the windows. I have bought into that fantasy".
Now a series that totals four books, The Sixty-Eight Rooms have introduced the Thorne Rooms to families and kids who’ve never experienced visiting them in person. Their magic extends beyond the glass casing they’re displayed in and reaches far beyond the expectations of Narcissa Niblack Thorne herself. Just as Thorne traveled across the world, her creation now has too, through a story born from what the rooms represent: curiosity, imagination, and creativity.
The Thorne Miniature Rooms are a true Chicago hidden gem with deep ties to the city—an ideal place to get lost in. Although they may be 1/12th our size, the stories they can inspire within us are larger than life.
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