Small Talk Tag: Narcissa Thorne

A Southwestern Sanctuary

Thorne New Mexico Dining Room

The famous miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago range from historical replicas influenced by patron and artist Narcissa Thorne’s travels abroad to striking reproductions of regional American home décor. These special rooms have been viewed, studied and enjoyed by generations (and even inspired a series of juvenile fiction books!).

The inspiration for one of our favorite works in the collection originates far from Thorne’s home in the Windy City. New Mexico Dining Room, c. 1940 includes small touches of both Pueblo Indian and Southwest American life, a style known as Pueblo Revival. Thorne’s eye for detail is not only apparent in the objects she chose to incorporate in the room setting, but also in the room construction itself. The kiva in the right corner of the room appears well-used with charring around its opening.  Colorful hand-loomed rugs, festively painted chairs, tiny retablos and intricately carved furniture all speak to the regional flavor that attracted many artists during New Mexico state’s early years.

Photo: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. A34: New Mexico Dining Room, c.1940. c.1940. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

Masterminding Historical Interiors

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In the late 1930s, Eugene Kupjack read a magazine article about Narcissa Thorne’s miniature rooms. Kupjack, trained in art and set design, took pieces of Lucite and fashioned them into a chair, a dish, and tiny glasses. He mailed them off to Mrs. Thorne—and six weeks later, he got a phone call. Mrs. Thorne loved his work. Would he come create some pieces for her?

Kupjack’s work as the principle artisan on 37 of the 62 Thorne Rooms launched his career in miniature-making, and he is now considered to be a father of the art form. Kupjack created approximately 700 miniature rooms during his career. Over the decades, Kupjack worked with many different mediums, but became particularly interested in creating silver miniatures after famous historical pieces, including Martha Washington’s tea tray and Paul Revere’s tankard. Today, Kupjack’s sons are active miniature artisans, and his work continues to awe visitors at the Art Institute of Chicago and museums around the world. As one 1971 Thorne Rooms viewer mused, “To see them is to marvel at the magic of his fingers and the ingeniousness of his mind that created this tiny room.”

Preserving Historical Interiors

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T/m’s miniature collection was greatly influenced by three spectacular commissions in the 1970s. We’ve already examined Queen Mary’s Doll House and Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, so now it’s time to examine the third: the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the 1920s, museums across the United States from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Detroit Institute of Arts were premiering full-scale period interiors. After traveling through Europe, Narcissa Thorne, daughter-in-law of the co-founder of Montgomery Ward and Company, dreamed of miniature rooms as a space-saving alternative to documenting, sharing, and preserving historical interiors.

Thorne began with 24 rooms that were exhibited to great acclaim between 1933 and 1940 at Chicago’s Century of Progress ExpositionSan Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition, and New York’s 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Over the years, she commissioned additional rooms for a total of 68 interiors spanning Europe from the late 13th century to the 1930s and America from the 17th century to the 1930s. They are now on view across the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago. We’ll be looking at some of the rooms in depth over time, but for now, check out this then-and-now postcard collection.

Photo: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. California Living Room, 1850-1875, c. 1940 The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.