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Back to School: Our Favorite Things
French boudoir, one of the Thorne Miniatures

French boudoir, one of the Thorne Miniatures

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute

The Art Institute is renowned for masterpieces by Picasso, Seurat, Van Gogh, and Monet. But my favorite exhibit has always been the Thorne Rooms. Created by Chicago socialite Narcissa Niblack Thorne between 1932 and 1940, this suite of 68 dollhouse-size interiors chronicles the history of design over seven centuries. Famed for the craftsmanship with which Mrs. Thorne’s workmen executed her vision, the impeccably detailed rooms re-create archetypal styles of European and American residential design on a scale of one inch to one foot. Situated behind a series of windows in a dim gallery, they range from the great hall of a castle in Henry VIII’s England to a French boudoir in the time of Louis XV; from a colonial New England inn to the entryway of a Tennessee home that might have welcomed Andrew Jackson; from an adobe Santa Fe dining room to an art deco penthouse straight out of a Noel Coward comedy. There are also representations of traditional Chinese and Japanese homes, as well as a majestic 13th-century Gothic cathedral.

The rooms are outfitted in remarkable detail, with tiny upholstered furniture, staircases, chandeliers, mirrors, patterned wallpaper and carpets, stained glass windows, framed artwork, and ornate ceilings. They’re tiny sets, and as such they’ve influenced theater and film artists over the decades—including the young Orson Welles, who studied at the School of the Art Institute. Walking through the long, darkened hall is like taking a tour back in time. 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, artic.edu. —Albert Williams

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