Welcome to the Dollhouse

Christine Ferrara is rehabbing her house. She’s stripping the wallpaper and the floors, and she has already positioned the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair on the second floor. A white leather sofa is up on the roof.

On the roof?

The buttery-soft accoutrement is awaiting placement in this miniature house, scaled 1:12 – that is, one inch of the sofa is the equivalent of one foot in life- size piece of furniture.

The growing trend in decorating miniature houses, or dollhouses, is far from your grandmother’s Victorian style, with gingerbread trim on the porch and antimacassars on chair arms. Ms. Ferrara’s tastes run to Mid-Century Modern. So popular is this trend, there’s even a Flickr site, Miniature Moderns, with hundreds of members.

Decorating with tiny furniture is right for our times: It’s a big world, with way too many people in way too many big houses. The call of the small has a more modest carbon footprint.

If one grows tired of a room after a while – the rugs are boring, the furniture no longer conveys excitement — with miniatures, you can change the room at whim. Ms. Ferrara’s rooms may change once a month, every week, or even day by day. “If I did that in my real house, I’d use up all the spaces very quickly.”

Speaking of using up space, 12 houses, even at miniature scale, take up a bit of room. Some of Ms. Ferrara’s are on display in living areas but the majority is in a studio room in the basement, shared by her husband who uses it as a home office. There is also an elliptical trainer, but the studio is generally referred to as “the dollhouse room.”

“We used to have them upstairs but they were invading our space, so we created this room,” she says. There are bins and boxes and shelves of miniscule furnishings: sinks, dinette banquettes, stools, cribs, a butcher block kitchen island, ironing board, pink rubber boots.

In an A-frame house, on a 4-inch white chaise lounge rests the book The Big Idea by A. M. Homes.

Lena Dunham’s 2010 indie hit film Tiny Furniture wasn’t about decorating in the small, but it included a character based on and performed by her mother, Laurie Simmons, a photographer who has built her reputation on pictures of tiny furniture.

Diminutive art was a theme of the 2008 Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. Keener’s character specializes in minuscule paintings that can only be seen under a magnifying glass — and indeed she needs a magnifying glass to create them. At her opening, all the viewers hold up a magnifying glass to see the work, just as museum-goers might otherwise be holding audio devices.

It’s easy to see how this can become an obsession. The tiny little spiral staircase, kitchen cabinets and appliances, lozenge-size pillows, laundry basket, vacuum cleaner, even an infinitesimal iPhone are oh so… cute!

And an obsession it is. Ms. Ferrara, who works by day in public affairs at the Institute for Advanced Study, will not admit how much she budgets for her hobby, but she has given up buying clothing in order to finance the furnishings for the Lilliputian rooms. “It’s addictive,” she admits. Some of the pieces, such as gold metallic drum chairs from the Petit Princess Line of the Ideal Toy Company, can go for $40 to $60 a chair, although Ms. Ferrara found them for $6 and $10.

Ms. Ferrara, who majored in art history at NYU and earned a master’s in the field at Hunter College, lives with her husband, a technology consultant for nonprofits, and three children, ages 4, 8 and 10, in a typical suburban colonial in West Windsor. It is furnished with family heirlooms, including a trestle table well worn from family activities, a brass samovar from Eastern Europe and a shiny chrome espresso machine her father brought back from Italy in the 1950s.

In order to be daring and creative, she says, to push the boundaries and create a “pleasing view of a perfect reality,” she creates scenes that are tidy and structured. “But I hope they bring out feeling or emotion with color.”

It’s a very organized process, she says, beginning with the selection of a piece of furniture that can determine the room or the type of environment.

The passion first began to subsume her when she saw the house of her dreams on Craigslist in 2008. Originally looking for a dollhouse for her daughter, she found herself ogling a Villa Sibi home with pool and outdoor patio that retails for $800 to $1,000. She would not disclose the Craigslist price, but her husband surprised her with the Bauhaus dollhouse for Christmas.

“It opened a new world for me,” she recounts. “I loved playing with miniatures until I was 10, and this gave me the chance to relive my childhood. I love little things.”

The Villa Sibi came with “basic furniture,” she says: minimal blond wood tables and chairs. Her redecoration includes a tiny white sofa covered with silver satin pillows and a teensy wine rack. How suave it would be to entertain in a space like this.

In the past two years, many Modern miniature artisans have emerged to create furnishings to appeal to the modern aesthetic. Dollhouse stores still stay true to the traditional, so Ms. Ferrara trawls online outlets late at night or on weekends.

There are several levels of altered reality operating here. First, it’s the world of the tiny house, where you imagine yourself relaxing in a teensy tiny sauna. Then, there is the online world of the Modern Miniature – and indeed there’s a whole world out there. Ms. Ferrara photographs her decorated rooms and writes posts for her blog, call of the small. “It brings together my art history background, and is a way to chronicle the journey and keep pace with artisans who are creating this furniture,” she says.

Followers of her blog are from Denmark, Germany, Australia, and countries in Asia and South America. “We have an online community, where we exchange ideas and give feedback.”

Last spring, Ms. Ferrara gave a talk at Design Within Reach on Nassau Street in Princeton, which sells human-scaled furnishings in the same style as her mini Moderns. She borrowed works from artisans to display fantasy rooms in her Kaleidoscope house, an award-winning museum quality dollhouse designed by Laurie Simmons and architect Peter Wheelwright for Bozart Toys. Manufactured from 2001 to 2004, it was sold through the Museum of Modern Art and is highly collectible.

Although Ms. Ferrara doesn’t make her own furniture, she does create furnishings from repurposed materials. For example, she turned flameless tea lights from West Elm upside down to use as a ceiling light. She cut up a foil-like placemat and used it as a room divider. A teak coaster became an outdoor deck, and a soap dish serves as a hot tub for the Villa Sibi house.

One of her recent projects is the Cube – basically, a room in a box. Manufactured by AG Minis, a defunct arm of the American Girl empire, it was sent to her by a reader of her blog. She has furnished it with flooring from Paper Source that suggests a silvery textured stone floor, “like cement floors with radiant heat in modern homes,” she says. Two shiny metal coasters from the Crate & Barrel outlet store in Cranbury, imprinted with the word “drink,” serve as wall art. An aquarium plant sits in a dollhouse vase, and the table at the center of the room is made by Harris Renfroe to look like a Noguchi.

A classic red Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, originally produced in 1958, is made in plastic by a Japanese company.

An intriguing work of art is calling out from the back wall. Framed in red and with a red background, there is the face of a woman with ruby red lips wearing a red coat and red hat. Her porcelain skin radiates through the red canvas and through this enigmatic room.

There’s an echo effect here: Ms. Simmons created a series of green dolls in green rooms, blue dolls in blue rooms, and so forth, making a statement about women fading into their backgrounds, just as Bonnard painted women in patterned clothing who fade into their similarly decorated rooms back at the turn of the 20th century. But women who decorate mini houses will never fade away.

Back upstairs, everything seems so large, like we’ve been going back and forth with Alice as she drinks from the bottle to grow small, then eats the cake to grow tall. There is a pair of life-sized shoes tucked into a corner of the stairs that echoes the decorating touches of the small world.

Lucky for Ms. Ferrara, her husband and children are on board with her hobby, and there’s rarely competition over who gets to play with it. “There are parameters. Artisan pieces are delicate and not meant for dolls to sit in.”

One of Ms. Ferrara’s constructions will be on view at Grounds For Sculpture beginning April 9.

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One Response to Welcome to the Dollhouse

  1. Great article. What fun for the whole family. It brings back many memories from my childhood. Nothing this fancy!

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