A Miniature Fascination


Arts & Culture

Huguette Clark.

When the 104-year-old copper heiress Huguette Clark died earlier this week, obituaries invariably included the word eccentric. This was surely due at least somewhat to her apparent preference for making her home in hospitals. But part of it—the bigger part, I’m guessing—was her passion for dollhouses. In her later years, Clark retreated into an expensive miniature world, surrounding herself with large amounts of the tiny.

Second childhood? God complex? Arrested development? Maybe. But Clark wasn’t alone. Miniatures have exerted a fascination over adults—and often, rich and powerful adults—since Duke Albrecht V forced large portions of a sixteenth-century court into the construction of what’s known as the “Munich Baby House.” Queen Mary’s Windsor Castle fantasia—furnished and outfitted by practically every artisan with a royal appointment—is famous; less well known is the elaborate dollhouse for which Alice Longworth Roosevelt frequently neglected guests, or the modern-art masterpiece created in the 1920s by the bohemian Stettheimer sisters. The Thorne Miniature Rooms, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, were a labor of love for Narcissa Thorne, bolstered by the Montgomery-Ward fortune. And heiress Frances Glessner Lee used her leisure to construct the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, scale dioramas of murders so accurate that they are still used today to teach burgeoning MEs. Clearly, there’s something about the world at 1:12″.

The writer, illustrator, and dollhouse-lover Tasha Tudor called the root of the appeal “perfection in miniature,” and it’s not hard to imagine that women of prior generations might have enjoyed exercising power over a larger domain than was their usual wont. A dollhouse could be aspirational: Faith Bradford, the Washington librarian who created the twenty-three-room miniature mansion on display at the Smithsonian, outfitted her creation with a full staff of servants—and Victorian piles, unsurprisingly, remain better sellers than apartments.

In the children’s books of Rumer Godden, the dollhouse stands as a benchmark of childhood. The Doll’s House, her 1947 meditation on imagination (and, yes, story of a dollhouse) concerns two sisters who inherit an heirloom outfitted with a doll family. The younger is firmly convinced that the dolls have lives and feelings and that they, the girls, function as arbitrary gods; the elder sister dismisses the notion as a childish fantasy. Which possibility is more exciting—or alarming—remains an open question. But the regularity with which Godden approached the subject in her fiction is no accident; as she saw it, dollhouses were something of the human predicament, in miniature, writing, “It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by.”

Queen Mary’s dollhouse.

Today, the miniatures landscape boasts three major dollhouse-miniature magazines, hundreds of Web sites, dozens of international conventions, thousands of enthusiasts. There are those who specialize in Sherlock Holmes dollhouses. Others who only like miniature tree houses, or Tudor cottages, or stores, or period scenes. Some people are crafters; others get into the dolls themselves. Some make tiny vegetables. Others scale Tiffany lamps. Or willow brooms. Or Gee’s Bend–style quilts. There are men and there are women. And that’s to say nothing of the kids. But there’s a certain ambivalence towards the pursuit, as exemplified by an article The New York Times ran last year in the “Home and Garden” section on urbanites whose interest runs to “Modern Miniatures”—contemporary design on a tiny scale. “Mini-modern enthusiasts are usually quick to distance themselves from other adult dollhouse collectors,” remarked the author, “who have a reputation for being somewhat eccentric.”

Well, yeah. It’s perhaps this stigma that explains the dearth of writing on the phenomenon: although there’s a vast body of work geared towards hobbyists and collectors. This is a photo-heavy genre pioneered in the 1950s by the collector Flora Gill Jacobs, and the majority of books concern themselves more with minivoyeurism (a worthy and natural goal), or the jargon of collecting, than with the hobbyists’ motivations. Maybe the associations are simply too cringingly obvious: Ibsen looms large after all—to say nothing of Lena Dunham or Joss Whedon.

But miniaturists—the people, the hobby, the history—deserve more than to be dismissed as an easy metaphor. It’s a fascinating world that continues to capture people—whether they admit to it or not. Wrote one confidante of Clark in later life, “She just wanted to be home and play with her dolls.”