Thursday, February 21, 2019

Flashback 2011: Sons of Thorne Rooms artist still run dad’s studio

A Thorne Room in the modern style. 

     Hank Kupjack died Monday. My colleague Maureen O'Donnell did her usual excellent job ushering the miniaturist into the hereafter. I felt a connection, beyond that offered by Maureen, because I had visited Kupjack at his studio in 2011. I remember being pleased that I had stumbled upon a bit of controversy over a subject as blandly familiar as the Thorne Rooms.


     Imagine that you are in the Impressionist wing at The Art Institute of Chicago, admiring the masterpieces, and you notice a placard telling visitors that the sons of Vincent Van Gogh — Harold and Bob Van Gogh, say — still run their dad’s studio.
     That’s basically what you find if you go down to the beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms in the basement of The Art Institute.
     Over the holidays my wife dragged the family there. I’ve never been a particular fan of the Thorne Rooms — the 68 wee interiors always struck me as girly. But they are art, of a sort, with a certain serene quality, and I had no trouble peering into them for 20 minutes, reading the notations, including one crediting the work of local craftsman Eugene Kupjack, adding: “Today Kupjack Associates is operated by his two sons, Hank and Jay, in Park Ridge, Illinois.”
     A few days later, I was shaking hands with Hank Kupjack, 59, a singular figure — very thin, pants tucked into tall black leather boots, wearing glasses, a turtleneck and a mop of anachronistic ginger brown hair.
     We chatted briefly about Istanbul, where the rooms were on display last year, then sat down at his workbench — dozens of jars of paint and shellac, dozens of needle nose pliers. Kupjack lit a Marlboro cigarette and conversation immediately took an unexpected dive into controversy.
     “As you know, the Thorne Rooms are very popular,” he began. “The Institute has never liked the rooms, I’ll be honest with you. Now they do. But they hadn’t, for a very long time, because they are the most popular thing in the Art Institute. . . . But they’re not Impressionist paintings, and the Institute for a long time didn’t like that. They always rubbed them the wrong way — they only acquired them because Thorne gave them to the Institute, [which] only took them because [Mrs. Thorne] was a founding member of the Art Institute and the only donor during the Depression. Once they were installed they couldn’t do anything about it.”
     That’s the risk of all public art — once you put it in, you can never get rid of it — and why Chicago is stuck forever contemplating a rusty baboon, a fiberglass Snoopy in a blender, and other crude 1970s debris that aging masters fobbed off on the city.
     Not to lump the Thorne Rooms in with such monstrous modernist kitsch — at least they require skill to create and are pleasant to regard.
     To my surprise, the Art Institute cheerily acknowledged both the popularity of the rooms now and the undervaluing of the rooms, installed in the mid-1940s, in the past.
     “When people come here, they look for American Gothic, for Sunday on the Grande Jatte, and for the Thorne Rooms,” said Erin Hogan, director of communications. “They’re a hugely, hugely popular part of the museum.”
     “I think there’s always that problem with, not only miniatures, but decorative arts in particular,” said Lindsay Mican Morgan, curator of the rooms. “There’s a history where paintings became ‘art’ and anything else is simple and decorative.”
     The Kupjacks — Hank is the main artist, Jay assists and take photographs — make the miniatures on a scale of one inch to one foot, now primarily for collectors and rich folk who want to immortalize themselves. The studio that produced “The Drew Carey Show,” for instance, paid the Kupjacks $100,000 to create a diorama of the show’s set.
     “Right now I’m doing a classical Greek andron — an andron is a room specifically built in a Greek home for parties, for boys only,” said Kupjack. “You basically sat around, drank wine, told stories, read poetry and behaved badly. The donor wants to show the context this stuff was actually used in antiquity.”
     “And the donor?” I asked.
     “We’re having serious issues,” he said, of the museum, which he asked me not to name (Geez, I thought, I flee politics to seek refuge in quaintness, and controversy still nips at my heels like a dim pup). “It’s going to go to one of several institutions that have large collections of classical art.”
     The Thorne Rooms — I did not realize — were intended to replace full-scale interiors.
     “When Mrs. Thorne was on the board in the 1920s, it was all the rage for museums to have full-sized period rooms,” said Kupjack. “The Institute had, I think, five or six. And she realized that not only were they terribly expensive to recreate . . . they took vast amounts of space and ultimately, when the public walked through they didn’t give a damn. The purpose of the Thorne Rooms was so that the Institute did not have to have full-sized period rooms. She did not realize they were much more popular than full-sized rooms until she did it.”
     I found the Kupjacks candid and charming, filled with tales of P.K. Wrigley, Marshall Field V and Malcolm Forbes, and the museum has grown to value them.
     “I have to admit, when I got this position, it took many tries and a lot of bridge building to gain their trust,” said Morgan. “They definitely felt hurt from the past. To me, they had so much history — they’ve given me fabrics, they’ve been very generous — it seemed ridiculous not to associate with them.”

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 7, 2011


  1. The Dubuffet in front of the Thompson Center.

  2. Damn. In all the times I've been to the Art Institute, I've never even heard of the Thorne Rooms. I will definitely seek them out next time.

  3. Marvelous. If I ever had the least curiosity about the Thorne Rooms, it disappeared two or three seconds after leaving them. Who knew there was gold in them thar Rooms!


  4. I fell in love with the Thorne Rooms as a kid, on a field trip to the Art Institute in the late Fifties. We were bused there from the suburbs, and guided through them by our fifth grade art teacher. I always included those miniature rooms on subsequent visits, right into adulthood. I have my favorites, including the English cottages and that wonderful 1930s San Francisco apartment--I have always LOVED Art Deco!

    Even as a youngster, I noticed how those rooms were lit, which made many of them appear to have sunlight pouring through their windows. They were a joy and a delight to a kid who'd never really traveled anywhere, along with the Colleen Moore dollhouse at the Museum of Science and Industry. Just two more of the many privileges of growing up in Chicago.

    1. FWIW, another Art Deco fan here. If I had unlimited money to spend on furnishing my living quarters (a pipe dream at this point), it would definitely be in Art Deco.


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