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From Issue #33 January 2, 2014

A Model Life

A visit with those living at 1:12 scale.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

Whole weekends of my childhood — even before my granddad retired — were spent in my grandparents’ garage, turning lathes, pushing wood through saws, and working drills. I made a lot of toys as part of the deal, and learned the basics of woodworking. But my granddad had been at it for years, and still is: he carefully crafted a chest and an envelope opener out of beech just this past Christmas.

He didn’t just produce toys for me. He made dollhouses and sold them to a local model store. It’s something that skilled craftspeople have been making for centuries. The store to which he sold his houses doesn’t exist anymore, a victim of the ever-increasing encroachment of video games into kids’ lives. But some still hold out, even as dollhouses’ popularity decreases.

Those customers who remain loyal buy big, though. Dave Simpson runs Maple Street Collectables, a UK-based store selling dollhouses and the furniture to go inside them. “One woman bought 90 houses from us in a single transaction, for six figures,” he says. And the highest-quality houses can cost £50,000 ($80,000), which is enough money for a competitive mortgage on an actual, full-scale building to inhabit. Simpson reckons the dollhouse market in the UK is worth £50 million ($80 million) a year.

There are two major customers who buy dollhouses, Simpson explains: those buying a toy for their children, determined not to give in to the onrush of polygons and the perpetual distraction of second screens; and collectors, mainly elderly women. “Every doll’s house is a collector’s cabinet” lit by the dim light of a tiny golden chandelier, he notes.

And though interior design fashion may change with the times, dollhouse furniture does not. You won’t find many modern minimalist designs with 1:12 scale plasma TVs pinned to the wall, as fashion froze 70 years ago. No collector wants to be reminded of his dingy 1960s home with its mud-brown veneers or of her orange paisley wallpaper, Simpson reasons. Edwardian, Victorian, and Georgian designs reach from basement to bedroom. It’s an aspirational lifestyle writ small.

Some of the items can be pricey. A handmade sideboard or dresser can cost as much as a full-sized one. The amount of work that goes into such furniture is as great as, if not greater than, that of a full-scale piece, because of the intricacy required. But the onset of Chinese imports split the market in the 1990s, says Simpson. Now there are two ends of the market: the entry-level, mass-produced products imported from China on one end, and the boutique handmade items from European craftsmen like my grandfather on the other.

My grandfather spent hours with his head inside four small walls on long winter nights, tinkering with the electrics as they wound their way behind plasterboard and under floors. And he did so for good reason: to spread the joy that comes from seeing and playing with a whole working home shrunk down to a Lilliputian size.

Because although collectors say they are collecting, many of them play. Mute old women living alone become ladies of the house, with servants and dumbwaiters and bells to call their staff. They dine on fine china and entertain in drawing rooms. “People build up their own lifestyle inside the house, inhabiting its walls,” says Simpson. “It’s like a 3D book.”

There is, of course, a hugely successful video-game franchise dedicated to spinning out stories in a house of your own making. You can even scrub it clean with a click of a mouse and build anew. But there’s something comforting about the tiny array of scale furniture—a shrunken-down window into a bijou world—that has lasted through the centuries. Tangible objects delight where pushing pixels can’t, even for an old man who can do both.

Photo by Joe Haupt.

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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