Christine Ferrara and her 1981 vintage Bodensee dollhouse
When I was a little girl, my absolute favorite toy was my Little Orphan Annie Mansion. I distinctly remember the grandeur of the dollhouse’s teeny chandelier, no bigger than a Triscuit. And the yellow striped Victorian-style sofa would have been a perfect make-out couch for a couple of cockroaches. I could lose myself for whole afternoons within its little rooms. Sometimes my younger brother joined me, though to escape slights to his masculinity for “playing with dolls,” he animated a toothbrush, moving it up and down the stairs, and relaxing it on the chaise. We thought nothing of Orphan Annie sitting down to dinner with a head of white Colgate bristles.
I haven’t owned a dollhouse since I was child, but I never really grew out of my appreciation for the miniature. In my early 30s, I lived near a toyshop that specialized in doll furnishings, and occasionally I would pop in and find myself making teeny, useless purchases. My husband would come home and stare quizzically at the toaster the size of a grape sitting atop our mantle—two miniscule pieces of wooden toast peeking out the top.
The appeal of the tiny is obvious to me, so I wasn’t that surprised when I learned about the growing world of miniature modern design. When I heard there were women out there meticulously creating dollhouses decked out with four-inch IKEA bookcases and itty bitty Eames chairs, I thought: how very weird. And also: I kind of want one.
Up until eight years ago, Megan Hornbecker had no idea the mini modern scene existed, either. A 41-year-old mother of two, she lives in the Bay Area and works for a web design company. But her real passion is designing fruit bowls the size of acorn caps, and office supplies that could only feasibly be used by an ambitious, executive mouse. She sells her tiny designs through Shapeways—which is sort of like Etsy for 3D printing—and runs the blog Modern Mini Houses, a tremendous resource for others in the community.
And yes, there is a community. Not just an online community, but one with meetups, workshops, and conventions—the whole shebang. While dollhousing as a hobby had long been the realm of traditionalists who favored handmade Tudor and Victorian designs, those elderly veterans are now passing on. In their place is a growing group of tech savvy, 30 to 50-something women with the power of the Internets at their fingertips and a love of Le Corbusier chairs in their hearts. A quick Google search of “Miniature Modern” comes up with over 62,000 sites to explore, including articles, blogs, ecommerce shops, Etsy stores, photo collections, and online auction sites like eBay. Hornbeckers’s own site gets around 10,000 visitors a month, and she has over 7,000 Facebook fans.
Hornbecker’s journey to adult dollhouse design was sort of happenstance. Back in college, her mom cleaned out the garage and Hornbecker reclaimed her childhood dollhouse. For a laugh, she took it to her dorm, where it was a big hit at parties. “The little people inside were constantly being put in compromising positions,” she laughs.
Years later, while pregnant, she got the idea to re-do the house—sort of a nesting instinct on a teensy level. But she realized she didn’t like the old school Victorian furnishings available in stores—which is what most of us think of when we think of dollhouses—with all their velvet and frills. So she turned to the Internet, and was surprised to discover a whole world of people who were also into sleek, candy-bar-sized sofas. Just like that, an obsession was born. Hornbecker’s bedroom now holds seven dollhouses, all of which have been meticulously furnished with mod designs and carefully photographed for her blog. “Yeah,” she says. “I sort of drank the Kool-Aid.”
"My kids don't go near my houses. They know better."-Megan Hornbecker
Any of Hornbecker’s pictures could be a spread from a West Elm catalogue; they make you long for an Alice in Wonderland-style pill to eat, so you could shrink down and host a dinner party in the incredibly stylish, diminutive dining room. Much more art-pieces than playthings, Hornbecker confirms: “My kids don’t go near my houses. They know better.”
A living room set up by Megan Hornbecker
The dollhouse as showpiece is not a new thing. In fact, some of the very first dollhouses were just that. In the 16th century, noblemen had their homes scaled down and recreated in miniature as a means of showing off and displaying their wealth. The fad continued in later centuries, and it wasn’t until the Victorian era that dollhouses became toys, though of course, only for extremely wealthy kids. With the Industrial Revolution and mass production, dollhouses eventually became more affordable, undergoing many transformations through the years, and ultimately leading us to the girlhood wet dream that is the Barbie Dreamhouse. (That elevator! The hot tub!)
But you won't find any run-of-the-mill Mattel furnishings in Anna-Maria Sviatko’s mini-mod masterpieces. An Australian miniaturist, her houses had their own exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, and the blog she started in 2006, The Shopping Sherpa, quickly became the place for newbies to learn the tricks of the trade. The detail in her work is amazing—glue bottles no bigger than a Cheerio perch on sleek desktops, next to miniscule sculptures and magazines. Gazing at the rooms, it’s as though someone has just stepped away to grab a quick thimble of coffee, and will return any moment. Sviatko, 50, currently blogs and edits for The tiny Times, and devotes herself full-time to the world of the miniature. She’s been involved with the scene since the 1980s, and is considered a pioneer by other enthusiasts. “I’d always felt frustrated and lonely as a modern miniaturist, as most others in the hobby were working with Victorian or country styles,” she says. “I used to wonder which came first: the lack of options causing people to think they didn’t have a choice, or manufacturers not making anything else because people wouldn’t buy them.”
Room in a ski lodge designed by Anna-Maria Sviatko
It was The Shopping Sherpa that introduced Christine Ferrara, 44, to the hobby she now describes as “an obsession.” A mother of three, Ferrara is the Director of Communications at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Back in 2008, she was searching the Internet for a dollhouse for her daughter, and stumbled upon the mini modern world. “I was really blown away,” she says. “I was just amazed that it existed! It never occurred to me that something could appeal to my adult sensibility design-wise, and still be a dollhouse.”
As a surprise, her husband bought their daughter a house for Christmas. But very quickly, furnishing the toy became Ferrara’s number one leisure pursuit. “I don’t think he realized what he was unleashing, buying me that house,” she says, laughing. “But it started this great journey of reconnecting with miniatures, and combining that with my adult sensibility of design—which is mid-century and modern.”
"It never occured to me that something could appeal to my adult sensibility design-wise, and still be a dollhouse." -Christine Ferrara
Ferrara is now the owner of 19 houses. Her blog, Call of the Small, caught the eye of a journalist in 2010, and her work was featured in a New York Times “Home and Garden” piece. Shortly after it ran, she began to get job offers to create mini scenes for book covers and magazines. She even created a spread for O: The Oprah Magazine, to accompany an article on spring-cleaning. But regardless of her love of the work, she still considers it more of a hobby than a real job. “The monetary aspect has never been a huge factor,” she says. “Really, it’s just been about the passion I have for it, and the joy that it brings me.” Indeed, people seem to be drawn to the modern mini world for different reasons. For Ferrara, it’s a way to relax. “The meditative aspect is really important to me,” she says. “There aren’t many opportunities in my life to just get in the zone. It’s very calming.”
Christine Ferrara's 1980s-era Blue Box dollhouse
For other enthusiasts, the appeal of mini modern is simply a love of design, but without the real-life commitment. For example, Hornbecker’s family is currently renting, so she doesn’t want to create her dream designs on a real-life scale yet. She’s saving that adventure for when she and her husband can purchase a Blu Home—a pre-fab, modular house. “We don’t want to buy real furniture yet,” she says. “When we get a house, we’ll know which bedroom set will fit, you know?”
This delay in purchasing real-size mod furnishings, however, has more to do with logistics than thrift, since some of the furniture in Hornbecker’s dollhouses can be just as expensive as an actual bedroom set. Unless you craft the entire thing out of toilet paper rolls and dreams, designing mini mod dollhouses is not a cheap hobby. For example, one could purchase a handcrafted 7.5-inch wooden bed from PRD Miniatures for $95. Meanwhile, at IKEA, you could purchase the Tarva, an actual human-sized wooden bed, for $99. The expense drives a lot of mini-modernists to cut down on costs by keeping an eye out for every-day items that can be re-imagined as furnishings. When Hornbecker spotted some little reading lights in CVS, her first thought wasn’t, “Cool, I should get one so I can finally finish The Goldfinch.” It was, “That will make a great floor lamp for one of my living rooms.”
Another way to cut costs is to trade. Many people specialize in making certain items, and there is a lot of bartering. For example, someone skilled in making teeny sinks might send you one in exchange for a teeny kitchen island. DIY is a major part of the hobby, and most of the creations out there are born of a glue gun, bits of fabric, and some seriously strained eyes.
Room in a ski lodge designed by Anna-Maria Sviatko
For Emily May, a 31-year-old marketing professional and mother of twins, the DIY aspect of mini mod is the biggest draw. Her blog, Go Haus Go, demonstrates everything from making string art to installing cool light switches in her real home. Her real home, by the way, is just as cool and unique as her dollhouse, which is a mini modern masterpiece that would make Martha Stewart drool. “My passion at my core is interior decorating, but real-sized rooms take a long time to come together. Painting is hard, furniture is expensive, and there are never enough hours in the day to get a project done,” she says. “Dollhousing is the opposite. It’s quick, the gratification is immediate, and it’s somewhat affordable. Can it take all day? Sure. But at the end of the day, I can go from a blank room to one that’s completely finished. That’s something you can’t really achieve—or at least I can’t—with real-sized rooms.”
May makes many of her dollhouse furnishings herself—hand-dipping teeny table legs and sewing bug-sized throw pillows. She crafts carpets the size of Kleenex, and paintings hang in mini-gilded frames. “People have a hard time understanding why I would want to spend hours in a dark basement, hunched over a lamp gluing tiny things together,” she says. “It’s an odd concept for sure.”
True, the whole “people understanding” part can be tricky. Let’s be real: when a grown woman mentions she has a dollhouse, it can conjure unsettling images of a lady in an ill-fitting ballgown sitting around chattering to herself, making tiny people sit on tiny toilets or take tiny baths. But in fact, most of the women I spoke with don’t even put people in their houses. “There are no realistic dolls that look like humans,” says Hornbecker. “As soon as you throw a doll in there, the illusion is gone. And I really like it to look real.”
A mini kitchen created by Emily May
May is one of the few mini mod collectors I spoke to who said she actually has tried to find people for her houses, but “it just never feels right,” she says. “It’s funny—you start to get really picky about who you feel ‘deserves’ to live in the house. And the people out there to buy feel so generic. It’s never been a good match.”
Mini modernists are well aware some people find them a tad strange, and everyone I spoke to equated going public with their hobby to “coming out.” Hornbecker was making houses for nine years, blogging under the name “Mini Dork,” and didn't tell anyone she knew. She used to have people over to her actual house, and just never mention, that, oh yeah, she had a half-dozen dollhouses in her bedroom. But when The Doll’s House Magazine came knocking and wanted to put her work on the cover, she decided it was time to go public. Now she is out and proud about her Lilliputian passion, and offers no apologies to anyone who finds her love of the little to be peculiar. “In my dollhouses, I can control where the pillows go, I can control the design,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about kids’ toys being left out on the floor or the mail sitting on the table. In my real life, I get pulled in different directions with what the kids need, and what school needs, and what work needs, and this is the one thing that just I need. I can do whatever I want with it.”
Wanna get small?
Check out these rad resources for mini-mod houses and furnishings:
By Johanna Gohmann
Photos by Danny Ghitis, Megan Hornbecker, Anna-Maria Sviatko, Emily May
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!