The strangest rooms in the world | Why I love (and am slightly fearful of) the Thorne Rooms in Chicago


The basement of Chicago’s principal art gallery contains many houses – 68 of them, and not one bigger than a shoebox. Neil Stewart enters the miniature worlds of Narcisa Niblack Thorne

1940s California interior, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago

1940s California interior, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is, as we’re saying these days, ram-packed with treasures of European and American art, from the stunning Cuban junglescapes of Wifredo Lam that out- (and pre-) Picasso Picasso, to some uncharacteristically benign Francis Bacon portraits and self-portraits.

Among its most diverting works, however, are the Thorne Rooms, 68 immaculate detailed scale replicas of home interiors from the middle ages to the art deco era, and from all parts of the world. Approximately 1:12 in scale, these are three-dimensional sets on Borrower scale.

These miniatures are less doll’s house than haunted house

The wife of an Indiana department store heir, Mrs James Ward Thorne – but let’s call her by her infinitely more splendid given name, Narcisa Niblack Thorne – began constructing these miniatures in the early 1930s. Accounts differ as to why she embarked on the project, though I’m taken with the theory that they began as a way to house various “trinkets” she’d received as gifts. (We’ve all been there, haven’t we? What to do with this revolting rubber vase someone gave us as a wedding present? Why not design a scale replica of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s insanity-inducing monster-caverns to house it?)

Thus these minute parlours, pantries, boudoirs, hallways, living rooms – from the grandeur-in-miniature of her Massachusetts Dining Room 1795 to the sepulchral Virginia Entrance Hall 1751­–55, the eau-de-nil wood panelling and neatly shelved volumes of English Library of the Queen Anne Period 1702–50 to the faithfully reproduced sliding screens and wall-scrolls in Japanese Traditional Interior. Fitted out and furnished, and with trompe l’œil diorama backdrops visible through minute French doors or shuttered windows, these are extraordinary pieces of work. One alone would be impressive. 68 is… intimidating.

Tudor bedroom, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago

Tudor bedroom, Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago

But are they art? Compared to the visionary images of those Bacons and Lams, for instance, well, no; they’re craft, albeit of a peculiarly dedicated kind. But when I visited, the basement in which the specially constructed chamber containing Thorne’s works was also showing a display of several hundred ornamental paperweights: pretty enough and, again, breathtaking in their precision, but essentially decorative crafts. What gives the Thorne Rooms a little more heft is not the meticulous detailing, but the implicit weirdness. Part of that comes from a faintly obsessional air to the project; the AIC’s collection represents the majority but by no means the full number of Thorne Rooms that Narcisa made.

What’s more, these miniatures are less doll’s house than haunted house. As you peer into shoebox-sized rooms, it’s hard to shake a conviction that some Borrower-like figure has just skipped through a tiny door out of sight. Is that rocking chair in Shaker Living Room c.1800 minutely quivering? Has someone just darted into the green velvet-curtained alcove of California Hallway c.1940, after adjusting the hang of one of the pico-Picassos on the wall. It’s impossible not to want to look closer – to reach the few inches to the far end of the room and twitch aside the curtain.

This dimensional slipperiness – which begins with the viewer’s realisation that what at first glance had seemed a roomful of painted interiors framed on the wall is a series of embedded three-dimensional vitrines – seems to anticipate a particular kind of looking that Narcisa may not have foreseen but, one feels, would appreciate. With a smartphone, you can make a short video in which the camera-eye approaches the framed glass front that protects each room then seems to slip through this barrier and inspect each corner of a tiny room that now entirely fills the screen. This manner of moving between the macro- and the micro- (in a format which may be watched on a screen a few inches across, or projected to two different sorts of life size) emphasises the weirdness of the illusion – and of the project itself. The shrinking ray may elude us, but you can still step inside these rooms, small in scale, deeply odd. C


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