When I was six, my grandparents brought me to The Strong’s National Museum of Play to see the doll house collections. I traced the details of each miniature room—nursery wallpaper with circus clowns, bell jars with little white birds, and tiny glass-grapes set-out on the dining room table. When I got home, I asked my mom, an interior designer, to get me scraps of fabric and wallpaper—I had to decorate the nursery in my own Victorian dollhouse.
The first dollhouses appeared in the late 1500s as status symbols for wealthy adults, who divided cabinets into compartments to show-off meticulously rendered miniature furnishings of exotic woods and fabrics. By the middle of the 20th century, grownups made a hobby of fabricating actual miniature rooms and houses. Last year, The Strong’s National Museum of Play acquired a large collection of dollhouses and miniature rooms made by avid miniaturist Ruth Rosenfeld. Inspired by her travels, Rosenfeld replicated homes and scenes from the countries she visited over a period of 30 years. As a fan of Claude Monet, I’m especially captivated by her reproduction of the dining room in his Giverny home. Homeowners and apartment dwellers have attempted this feat as well, but nothing compares to Ruth’s keen eye. She even included the five vases on the mantel and the Japanese engravings Monet so expertly selected. When viewing this room, I am whisked away to another place and time.
Miniature rooms and houses like these captivated children too. By the end of the 1800s, companies produced dollhouses for child’s play. Modeled after the New York City townhouses of wealthy Americans, the Large Mystery House (named by staff) conjured images of the aristocratic lifestyle. The home consists of eight rooms, an entry hall, light fixtures, and parquet floors in red, green, and black geometric patterns. Parents of that era believed that playing with dollhouses prepared their daughters to manage elaborate social occasions. As with any custom-crafted home, the prices of such doll houses ran high. One version of this home sold for $150—more than a whole month’s salary for a doctor or a lawyer. However, it did not take long for the Mortiz Gottschalk Company of Germany to begin mass-producing dollhouses, and soon, kids from various economic backgrounds became proud homeowners. The company constructed the homes of lithographed paper on wood to create a structure of whimsical gables, turrets, spires, spindles, balustrades, and balconies.
Recently, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) hosted a contest for its members to create a more modern Barbie Dream House. Architects Ting Li and Maya Parklar won. Their design incorporated plenty of environmental-friendly components such as green spaces, a rooftop green house, solar panels, bamboo flooring, and low flow toilet and sink features. This version is much more environmentally sound than the first cardboard Barbie Dream House that hit the market in 1962. However, Barbie found the location of the earlier model convenient—the house folded into a box with a handle on the top for quick relocation. Since her first house, Barbie’s occupied a townhouse with a working elevator, a three-wing mansion, and even homes wired for electricity.
Setting up home is no easy task. After my mom brought home scraps of fabric and wallpaper, I spent hours strategically arranging the sofa pillows in my Victorian doll house and stitching custom seat covers for Barbie’s pink dinette chairs. By imagining narratives about the dollhouse’s occupants, I later learned about problem-solving and how to develop dynamic characters while pursuing an MFA in creative writing. If you’re interested in revamping your home décor or dollhouse interior, check out designer Jonathan Adler’s life-size Barbie Dream House, the Mount Vernon Dollhouse, or the 1950s Ranch House. I find mixing and matching decades of style especially fun.