Event—Scholarly Seminars

K.L.H. Wells, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Uncanny Design of the Thorne Miniature Rooms


The Uncanny Design of the Thorne Miniature Rooms

During the 1930s, Narcissa Niblack Thorne created an extensive series of miniature dioramas that brought together the aesthetics of the period room, the department store window, and the stage set. The miniature rooms became a popular exhibition, shown at museums and world’s fairs across the United States during the 1930s and early 1940s, that ostensibly educated viewers by presenting model interiors as evidence of the historical past. But what the Thorne rooms put on display was not only the historical design of their period sources, but also the contemporary design of Thorne and her creative team. As a wealthy Chicago socialite, Thorne was a glamorous public figure whose celebrity added to the appeal of the model rooms; they made the world of Thorne and her peers visually accessible through the magic of miniaturization. Both voyeuristic and immersive, the miniature rooms employ techniques of design to present design itself as a marvelous object of study.

This paper argues that the Thorne miniature rooms functioned simultaneously as practical models of American design and as uncanny spectacles for their early audiences. The slippage between representing a period room and representing a contemporary room decorated in a historicist style enabled the Thorne miniatures to serve as exemplars for contemporary designers and their patrons. Thorne’s work in miniatures grew out of her involvement with the Women’s Exchange charity in Chicago, which helped women earn income from handicrafts they made at home. Her rooms provided work to unemployed architects, window dressers, and craftsmen, while their display raised funds for architects’ relief charities. They also became part of a diplomatic exchange with the United Kingdom, where Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House served as both their model and rival. The very historicism and hand craftsmanship of the Thorne miniature rooms critiqued industrialization and its failures during the Great Depression, but the miniature rooms still presented American design as a realm of problem solving, delight, and skill that could offer solutions to the great problems of the day. There was always an uncanny edge, however, to the delight that viewers took in these rooms. Popular press accounts emphasized the magical power of the miniatures through allusions to Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver Swift’s Lilliput, and even religious conversion. Viewers were invited to abandon the rules of time and space by visualizing themselves within the Thorne rooms and imagining their historical occupants brought back to life. Their very perfection could appear unsettling, producing an uncomfortable tension between reality and artifice. The Thorne miniature rooms suggest how an aesthetics of the uncanny was central to revivalist design, and they can inform our understanding of how uncanny revivals spoke to viewers during a period of economic and political uncertainty.

Respondents: Nora Atkinson, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Sarah Carter, Chipstone