Simanaitis Says

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AN ODD synergy exists between a wealthy Chicago woman, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, and the theater/film/radio great, Orson Welles. It’s all the more curious in that Welles has been called larger than life, yet the synergy is at 1/12-scale.


Narcissa Niblack Thorne, 1882-1966, artist, patroness of the history of interior design.

Mrs. James Ward Thorne, wife of a Montgomery Ward heir, was a talented artist with a flair for interior design, particularly from the historical point of view. Between 1932 and 1940, she set up a studio and hired craftsmen to construct—at her direction—a series of miniature rooms.

No more than 100 of these are known to exist, 68 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 20 at the Phoenix Art Museum, 9 at the Knoxville Museum of Art and several not in public view.

Thanks to the Art Institute of Chicago, we can visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms virtually (


English Great Room, Late Tudor Period, 1550-1603.

A Tudor Great Room is one of the earlier settings modeled (a Gothic church is the earliest). I admire the Tudor room’s detailed ceiling and wainscoting.


English Drawing Room, Jacobean Period, 1680-1702.

The chest on the left wall of the Jacobean Drawing Room is especially fetching. And, remember, at 1/12-scale, it’s only about six inches high. The painting over the fireplace is impressive too.


French Dining Room, Louis XIV-Louis XV, c. 1700.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the court at Versailles. The Thorne Dining Room is evidently designed for intime meals, not grand dinners. Notice how artfully the lighting is rendered.

American Shaker

American Shaker Living Room, c. 1800.

The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, contributed austerity and simplicity to interior design. I can hear Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” as I view this one. Note the chair rail on the right wall, used to gain floor space.


English Drawing Room, Victorian Period, 1840-1870.

Sherlock Holmes would have visited such an elegant drawing room when aiding one of his more illustrious clients. The drapery is noteworthy in its modeling.


New Mexico Dining Room, c. 1940.

Several of the Thorne rooms are contemporary, in that she designed them and oversaw their construction as modern activities. This New Mexico Dining Room is among the last of the models. The bowls on the dining table and fruit on the sideboard are exquisitely tiny.


Japanese Traditional Interior.

Though most of the Thorne rooms are American or European, this one and a Chinese Traditional Interior are exceptions. This Japanese room reminds me of a Kabuki theater set. The foliage is a charming touch.

The Art Museum of Chicago also offers another way to enjoy the Thorne rooms through its Game of Thornes ( It’s a wonderful adventure.

But what about Orson Welles?


Orson Welles, 1915-1985, had a special appreciation of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Image, from 1937, by Carl Van Vechten.

In his teens Welles studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where, it’s said, he admired the Thorne rooms almost as prototype theater sets.  In Barbara Lemming’s Orson Welles: A Biography, she recounts how Welles spoke often about “the magic box,” the world created by an artist.

Her book completed, Lemming was on a book tour in Chicago when Welles phoned her and encouraged a tour of his haunts in that city, including the Thorne rooms.

Lemming bought him a catalog of the rooms, the photos similar to those shared here, but Welles was disappointed.

“This isn’t my magic box,” he said. “They’ve cut the frames off!”

Later, the last time Lemming saw Welles, they were driving through Los Angeles at dusk. Stopped for a traffic light, Welles looked up to a building where a single illuminated room was visible. Within, it was beautifully furnished with art on its walls and an open door at its rear.


French Salon, Louis XVI Period, c. 1780; a Thorne room with frame.

“Look,” Welles said, “Do you see it!?” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


  1. Pingback: Narcissa Niblack Thorne - Dollhouse Decorating

  2. S.M. O'Connor
    January 11, 2018

    I was exceedingly interested to read this essay. Thank you for writing it.

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