Friday, January 16, 2009

It's a Small World

"In miniature, anyone can live in a room designed by an expensive and exclusive New York decorator."

Do you know what I would like to see more of? Miniature rooms. How charming to see elegant rooms shrunk down to Lilliputian size. I marvel at the details of these self-contained little worlds- the tiny furniture and artwork, the miniature rugs, the thimble sized light fixtures. It is probably not feasible for a designer to create these models as selling tools for clients. But for a really good client, wouldn't it be fun to have a miniature replica made of said client's favorite room...perhaps as a thank you gift?

Some of the most amazing miniature rooms I've seen were those designed by McMillen Inc. back in 1932. Because the Depression was underway, Eleanor McMillen Brown wanted to avoid having to lay off any of her well-trained staff. So, her brilliant employee Grace Fakes came up with a fantastic idea- why not make miniature rooms and display them in a traveling exhibition? It would certainly keep the employees occupied for a while.

Done on a scale of one and a half inches to one foot, these rooms are incredible. When you see photos of them, you almost think that you're looking at a life-size room. Everything was made with correct proportions and unbelievable details. There was a mini painting by Van Day Truex and small busts by Wheeler Williams. Small fireplaces, petite Aubusson rugs, and little bouillotte lamps rounded out these rooms. They must have been something to see in person!

Jump ahead to 1978 and miniature rooms were on the mind of legendary window dresser Gene Moore. Moore asked various decorators to design scaled down rooms (a scale of one inch to one foot) for display in Tiffany's windows. Parish-Hadley and Mario Buatta both participated, and again, I wish I had been able to see them for myself. For many passersby, I'm sure it was the first time they had seen a Parish-Hadley or Buatta room up close. And truly, are these rooms any less charming than the real deal?

(Images at top: A small scale room designed by Parish-Hadley for Tiffany & Co.)

McMillen's Miniature Rooms:

An authentic replica of Mrs. Marshall Field's living room

A blue and white bedroom. Notice the tiny magazines and flowers on the tables.

A penthouse sunroom with mural by Barry Faulkner. The plants are real.

The Tiffany Rooms:

Even someone with a large personality like Mario Buatta can do miniature rooms!

Room designed by Kevin McNamara

Room by Angelo Donghia

(McMillen rooms from Sixty Years of Interior Design: The World of McMillen. Tiffany & Co. rooms and quotation from Windows at Tiffany's: The Art of Gene Moore)


  1. I LOVE these miniature rooms! I've loved decorating, rearranging and accessorizing miniature rooms in the dollhouses my dad made for me when I was little.

    One of my fondest memories was when I was probably 5 or 6 and going to the Museum of Science and Industry, in Chicago, with my dad and spending forever at Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle exhibit & just dying over all of the beautiful details in each of the amazing rooms!

    I could look at these for ever it seems like : )

    Thanks for the sweet post,

    Arlynn from Fleur De Licious

  2. Thank you for sharing your story Arlynn. I'm not familiar with Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, but it sounds like something that I could spend hours looking at!

  3. i love the marigold paint and happy (palm beach ) chintz

  4. The Parish Hadley miniature is based on a drawing room that can be seen, in its original form, in Slim Aarons' book A Wonderful Time. The client was Mrs Donald Harrington.
    According to the text, Albert Hadley considered it one of his finest creations,
    It looks very Palm Beach, yet this double page spread was part of a chapter on the South West.
    (No matter where~it's a lovely room.)

  5. Renee- I adore that room. And thank you Toby for giving us more information on it. I wondered what the inspiration was behind it.

  6. I coveted a friends dollhouse when I was a little girl. It was a Southern plantation with beautiful furniture. I begged my parents for one...I got a particle board monstrosity. I was forever disappointed, but too good of a daughter to voice my outrage and discontent. These rooms are lovely. I'm not a "yellow" person, but the first photos make me a believer.

  7. Jill- I wanted a doll house mansion but ended up with a cute two bedroom country home instead!

  8. Sydney Collier12:54 PM

    There's a whole world of miniatures out there. Some of the artisan pieces make beautiful accessories. is an example of glorious miniature furniture that would be charming in a table scape. There will be a small miniature show and sale in Atlanta sometime in February.
    The Kipps Bay show house in NYC had designers do miniature rooms in the ’90’s, I believe for two or three years, which were great. They were online, but I think they took them down now.

  9. Not sure if anyone mentioned this, but the Art Institute of Chicago has an amazing collection of miniature rooms called the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

    I could have stared at them for hours, and I ended up buying the corresponding book, which comes in hardcover and paperback.

  10. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Does any one out there know the work of the North Carolina decorator Otto Zenke? He too did a series of rooms in the 30s and I believe they are all still languishing in a state of disrepair in Greensboro NC Museum. Many years ago a few of them where on display in a restaurant (of all places) in one of the High Point furniture market buildings. The few I saw were fantastically chic and beautifully done. At one time I tried to put Baker Furniture and the Museum together to fund their repair for a future exhibition but nothing came of it.

  11. There is an utterly fabulous museum in Nassau County - Long Island of miniatures rooms. An ideal comment would include the name of the museum---sadly, I'm far from ideal--but it's adjacent to the Nassau County museum in Roslyn.

    Every one who loved this post (I did!) would be enthralled by this museum.

  12. What a lovely post. Anyone in the Chicago area (I grew up in Lake Forest) would be amazed by the Thorne rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. These 68 miniature rooms are incredible. There is a book on this subject sold at -Miniature Rooms:The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago by Bruce Hatton Boyer. I am now in the D.C. area and one of daughter's best birthday parties ever was high tea at the Doll House Museum.

  13. Also in Chicago at the Art Institute are the Julia Thorne miniature rooms showing the evolution of style through the centuries - she even has a room based on Syrie Maugham's all white living room. Just divine. EEE

  14. There is obviously a lot I need to learn about miniature rooms. Thank you all for telling me about all of these other wonderful collections!

  15. How charming! I'd never heard of these designer miniatures before.

    Do you know the famous Stettheimer dollhouse -- a 1920s elaborate dollhouse complete with avant-garde art? If not, I think you'll adore it:

    P.S. Congratulations on the House Beautiful mention.

  16. Jennifer- Neat post! What I am wondering is how small is the cording on the sofa? Let's hope times don't come to this again!

    Thanks for the visual comfort post too- I was about to order some things from there and glad to see it was resolved. all great info- thanks. enjoy the weekend.

  17. Jennifer, there is somehow a great deal of appeal to things in miniature. When I was young, my grandmother had all these old issues of National Geographic and one in particular had an article and photographs of Queen Mary's dollhouse and it totally captivated me! I used to be into miniatures/dollhouses when I was little, but nothing on the scale of these beautiful designer rooms - amazing! Great post.

  18. Have waited too long to say how much I enjoy your blog...your range and knowledge of design history are tremendous. I'm betting you already know about the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago----all of which are terrific, especially the 30's modern interiors, which are drop dead. Here's a link:

  19. Those are incredible. If I had more time, it'd be fun to dabble in miniatures.

  20. I fell for the beauties of the Art Institute's Thorne Rooms when I was on a 7th grade field trip to Chicago, and 4O years later, that black-white-& Lucite pastiche of a Syrie Maugham London drawing room was the inspiration for my current dining room, even though my room is only about a tenth of the size of that room.

    But here's what caught my eye in Jennifer's post: the Boutet de Monvel portrait in the model of McMillen's Long Island room for Evelyn Marshall Field. I always assumed that the portrait was of Mrs. Field, done during her short marriage to Marshall Field 3 of Chicago.

    But a few weeks ago I came across a photo of what seems to be an identical de Monvel painting--with only a change of color of the subject's scarf--hanging in the Chicago apartment of Bobsy Goodspeed, another major figure in Chicago society of the 193Os.

    OK, what's going on here? I've always admired the cool, classical composition & immaculate finish of de Monvel's paintings, but if he sold the same portrait to two different--and powerful--women who moved in the same small circle & who only lived a few miles apart, he was playing with fire. I'll bet there's a story there, somewhere. Thanks for connecting the dots, Jennifer.

    That's what I love about the Internet: you never know who'll contribute a piece of the puzzle.

  21. What a fabulous art form! Wish I could shrink myself so I could walk around in these wee rooms.
    Another charming and smart post!
    xo xo

  22. Thanks for the interesting post. I passed my dollhouse furniture and accessories on to my daughter in hopes that it will foster a love of decorating in her as it did for me. I love seeing the professionally decorated miniature rooms. Thanks!

  23. Magnaverde- Your mind is like a steel trap!! Am not familiar with de Monvel or Bobsy Goodspeed, but this sounds like something I need to look into as well.

  24. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Great post! The history of miniature rooms is so endless and varied. I've learned so much in just this one post. Sir Edwin Lutyens extraordinary doll house for Queen Mary is one of my favorites! I too grew up in Lake Forest and briefly attended the School of Art Institute of Chicago visiting the Thorn rooms many many times... more so than attending class. One of my best friends growing up was related to Mrs. Thorn and his family had a couple of her rooms in their house- which I of course coveted!

  25. I'm absolutely amazed at the precision of the McMillen rooms! Makes Barbie's mansion look like a shack!

  26. J. Shearron,
    Glad to see your name here. Still working on my project but had to take a house moving detour. Please visit my blog: "Let me get this straight, zenke" or "save the zenke house" and that should bring up the latest saga of destruction - and trying to avoid it.
    Had a great time in ChiTown. toured the Adler house on Aster St, then visited his home in Liberty. & of course the Thorne rooms. Lovely and fascinating.
    Our best to you.