On a smaller scale

PROPERTY Can't afford a new house? Why not think really small? A dolls' house can be yours for pounds 300 - or pounds 75,000. Lesley Gillilan on a miniature boom ley Gillilan on the boom in dolls' houses
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The Independent Culture
"HOUSES have influenced my life so deeply," writes Vivien Greene, widow of novelist Graham, in The Vivien Greene Dolls' House Collection (Cassell, pounds 30). "They have entered my dreams, have made me stand enraptured... filled me with a longing to possess." This longing, due in her case to a miserable childhood in which she was hauled from one home to another, is a classic characteristic of adult dolls' house addicts.

Not everyone seeks solace, security and fulfilment in Lilliput, but for those who do there are few aspirations or material cravings that cannot be satisfied in miniature. Jane Laverick took her first step towards small- world addiction when she bought an original, unfurnished Edwardian dolls' house from an antique shop for pounds 300. She believes her condition is rooted in the frustrated sale of her full-size house in Warwick, still on the market after seven years of trying to find a buyer.

"My dolls' house collection is a form of compensation for all the properties I've looked at but can't have," says Jane. "Once hooked, it becomes an obsession." Now she is a 16-property mini maniac. "When you've finished one house," she says, "you want one on a different scale, from a different period, or the same period in a different social class."

Smallness is catching on in a big way. In fact, the Eighties housing boom looks puny compared to the buoyant market in scaled-down properties. Whether it's a Queen Anne mansion, a Regency Palladian townhouse or a Stockbroker Tudor semi, by shrinking your desires to the standard 1in to 1ft (1:12) scale of dolly-sized housing, you can have it.

The Greenes had just lost their London home in a bombing raid when Vivien bought her first dolls' house in the 1940s. While Graham did his bit for the intelligence service, she spent the blacked-out evenings of her war years furnishing her tiny surrogate home. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsessive international quest for the forgotten legacies of early dolly housing booms.

Adult dolls' houses have been around since the 16th century and originated in Holland and Germany. The vogue for miniaturised homes didn't really catch on in Britain until the 18th century, and though they remained fashionable throughout the Victorian era, hand-crafted mini homes were gradually superseded by mass-produced toys. By the time Vivien embarked on her small-world odyssey, interest in period dolls' houses had shrunk to almost zero.

Now 91, Vivien possesses dozens of the fine houses she dreamt of in childhood. Some she bought for just a few pounds; others were donated, or rescued from dereliction. They represent 200 years of domestic architecture - from a William and Mary mansion to an Edwardian villa. Each property mirrors the lifestyle of the period and a stage in social history.

While antiquarian dolls' houses and accessories are now valued beyond the means of most ordinary buyers, there is another side to the market - contemporary miniatures, made in modern workshops. This sector is awash with cheap, imported products made largely in Taiwan.

Doing-it-yourself in miniature is Britain's fastest growing hobby, and the demand for ready-made houses, furnishings and appliances is providing work for hundreds of crafts workers. You will find them all at the massive dolls' house exhibition, Miniatura, at Birmingham's NEC (held every March and September), the largest of 200 events on the collectors' calendar. Their work fills the pages of the two specialist magazines: Dolls House World and International Dolls House News.

According to Caroline Nevill, who runs a dolls' house emporium in Bath, the market is split into two categories: the scrimpers and savers, and the money-no-object rich. At the lower end, people buy cheap kit houses and spend a lot of time running up teeny curtains from scraps of fabric and moulding vegetables out of Fimo (a polymer-based clay).

At the upper end, custom-made properties by, say, Kevin Mulvaney and Susan Rogers, can cost more than many people pay for a real house. A David Booth chaise-longue (hand-carved mahogany upholstered with silk) costs around pounds 100. For these buyers, Caroline Nevill stocks tiny sets of hallmarked silver cutlery, hand-blown glass goblets, hand-thrown teapots, wallpaper, Delft-ware, garden implements, dolls, dogs, leather luggage, works of art and everything for the kitchen including storage jars and broken eggs.

In another new book, Miniature Interiors (Cassell, pounds 9.95), Nick Forder uses his formal training as an interior designer to present the work of "today's finest miniatures craftsmen" in a series of inspirational room sets. The themes include Swedish Gustavian (with gilded furniture by Charlotte Hunt), New York apartment (wonderful fake leopard-skin sofa by Laurence Disle) and an Egyptian bedroom (marble-floored, gauzy, gold and very Hollywood).

Nick and his wife, Esther, are co- editors of International Dolls House News. "Most collectors are trying to create an idyllic, controllable lifestyle in miniature," says Nick. "They like interiors that are the complete opposite to their own homes." The most popular periods are Victorian and Edwardian, though there is a vogue for Georgian and Tudor. Nick Forder's Rennie Mackintosh bedroom and Bauhaus living room reflect emerging trends, but the market for mini modernism is small.

Jane Laverick reckons a retreat to the past is part of an "undercurrent of anxiety" in our society. Having first immersed herself in an Edwardian Arts and Crafts house, she moved to an American Civil War property, a Tudor house, a post-war prefab, several room boxes (including nautical scene with mermaid) and a Victorian cottage with a landscaped garden.

Weird? Not at all. I can see the attraction. There is something strangely captivating about perfect miniatures. One trip to my local dolls' house store and I found myself calculating what I could afford - and what I'd achieve with a lump of Fimo. !