Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chez Muscato

I wish. I could happily live in these rooms. Airy, beautifully decorated, sophisticated, chic...

And about 16 inches wide.

Yes, these are miniatures, the painstaking work of a Chicago matron of the 1930s, one Mrs. James Ward Thorne. She was concerned, we're told, that museums might not be able to continue having enough space for period rooms (remember them? When did museums stop pushing period rooms so heavily, replacing them with endless galleries of grandfather clocks and rows of settees?).
So she and a dedicated band of craftsmen set to work, creating ideal examples of specific periods ranging from Elizabethan taverns to the very latest trends in Moderne decorating. Every single item was created from scratch, every carpet specially woven, every tiny vase, sconce, and bibelot made by hand.

She helped set as a standard the one-inch-to-the-foot scale that is now the usual thing in dollhouses and miniatures more generally.

Mrs. Thorne originally rejoiced in the remarkably euphonious name of Narcissa Niblack, which I think some day I may have to use as a nom de guerre in one way or another.

There are about 100 Thorne rooms all told. The Art Institute of Chicago has the best-known collection, but there are examples in Phoenix, Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles.

I can only imagine, 60-odd years after their creation, that they are something of a curatorial nightmare, both because of the ongoing conservation problems they must present and because, as fixed environments, they are so immune to changing tastes: what Narcissa said was the perfect Georgian interior in 1938 remains so today, no matter what scholars now think about eighteenth-century trends in, say, valances.

As such, they are as much windows on the years of their creation as they are to the periods they represent: our grandmothers' idea of lovely, still as fresh as the day that Mrs. Thorne set an armchair just so.

One thing I do know: were I able to claim the charming stairhall above as my own, I'd keep the rose.


  1. I did love visiting Mrs. Thorne's rooms when I lived in Chicago, they're so little and precious and really wonderfully gay. I was thinking of them just the other day and so it felt coincidentally nice you blogging about them.
    And btw I also adore the Goops, being very much a part of an era I love, so thank you for them as well.
    With kind regards,
    Your biggest fan in L.A.

  2. After the Impressionists, the Thorne Rooms are the best thing going at the Art Institute. And you're quite right about shifts in our understanding of actual historical rooms. The Thorne Rooms innocently suffer the same fate as less ingenuous forgeries: they betray their own period!

  3. How exquisite. I can't believe I missed them at the Art Institute. Oh well, yet another reason for another trip to Chicago.

  4. These rooms are absolutely exquisite! I would love to see them in person!