Places that Work: Miniature Rooms

A15: New York Parlor, 1850–1870, c.1940, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature Room, Mixed Media, Interior:  12 3/8 x 17 1/2 x  21 in., Scale: 1 inch = 1 foot, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago celebrate the diversity of spaces that human beings can call home. They move visitors, gently, to think about the places they live.

As you enter the miniature rooms gallery you know you’re in a space that’s distinct from the rest of the Art Institute. Unlike adjoining areas, here the floor is carpeted, muting the echoes of ambient conversations to hushed tones. This seems appropriate for the intense study of tiny, intricate, realistic replicas of living spaces.


A37 California Hallway
A37: California Hallway, c. 1940, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature room, mixed media, Interior: 13 7/8 x 16 5/8 x 19 3/4 in., Scale: 1 inch = 1 foot, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

Authenticity can be studied in 68 displays, built at the scale of 1:12 (some even more diminutive) by skilled craftsman in the first half of the 20th century. Steps in front of each miniature setting allow even the shortest visitor to get close to the protective glass and press her nose against it, to take in all of the stunning details.

E-1 English Great Room of the Late Tudor PeriodE-1: English Great Room of the Late Tudor Period, 1550-1603, c. 1937, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature room, mixed media, Interior: 23 x 25 1/4 x 31 3/4 in., Scale: 1 inch = 1 foot, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

These exquisite dioramas (although using that term here is like calling raw pasta a string jewelry) are a three-dimensional catalog of international interior design during the last several hundred years. The house-types profiled include homes from the Tudor period in England, early New England, 1940’s California, and traditional Japan. Others defy easy categorization, like an English Roman Catholic Church depicted in the Gothic style (ca. 1275-1300).  Photos of all miniature rooms can be seen on the Art Institute website.  Their construction was funded by Mrs. James Ward Thorne, who donated them to the museum.

E-21 French BoudoirE-21: French Boudoir of the Louis XV Period, 1740-60, c. 1937, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature room, mixed media, Interior: 18 1/4 x 24 3/4 x 23 1/8 in., Scale: 1 inch = 1 foot, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

Because the rooms are empty of miniature people, it’s easy for us to imagine ourselves in them. This sort of day dream is especially evocative because the rooms are clearly “inhabited”: books are left lying casually on table tops, as if someone reading them will return momentarily; dogs snooze by the fire, and chairs aren’t always pushed back into their “straightened-up” positions.

A24 Virginia Entrance HallA24: Virginia Entrance Hall, 1751-55, c. 1940, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature room, mixed media, Interior: 14 x 18 1/4 x 22 in., Scale: 1 inch = 1 foot, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

Eavesdropping in this gallery is inevitable.  People need to stand close together to get good views into the tiny spaces.  Although the most frequent topic of conversation is the skill of the workmen, discussions of what it would be like to live there are also common, leading to comments about what the visitors feel comfortable with in a living room or bathroom. This private/communal moment transforms tacit thoughts to explicit statements, which pay dividends later as museum visitors design their own homes.

E-30 Chinese InteriorE-30: Chinese Interior, Traditional, c.1937, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Miniature Room, Mixed Media, Interior: 12 1/4 x 21-3/4 x  13 in., Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

The gallery displaying the Thorne Miniature Rooms is a place that works because it helps us understand the physicality and the style that a home might take, mixed with the expectations and experiences of our fellow visitors.  This is a place where we learn to understand ourselves a little better.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at sallyaugustin@designwithscience.com .

Sally Augustin’s previous post in this series was about the Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized

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