Dolls' houses: Mansions in miniature

For those who adore mid-century design but can't afford the real thing, the answer could be in the trend for Modernist dolls' houses, says Kate Burt

Shards of sunlight stream through the windows of Annina Günter's 1960s-built house, in East Sussex, illuminating the clean smooth lines of a black wooden-legged Eames dining chair and vintage vinyl floor tiles.

There's a trio of stylish nudes above the teak sideboard, where a red plastic ice bucket sits poised for retro cocktails. Elsewhere in the house, there's an original 1950s Danish rosewood coffee table, a geometric, rattan-framed mirror, a giant rubber plant, shelves full of brightly coloured vintage Scandinavian ceramics ... It's a mid-century modern paradise – cosy but not too kitsch and tasteful without being designer-heavy, the place has a style in a very lived-in sort of a way. Which is ironic, considering you'd have to be under a foot tall to get through the front door.

Günter, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Hove, collects dolls' houses – and her two vintage homes are original German-made "Vero" houses – one a bungalow, one a two-storey, bought for around €200 a piece on Ebay.de, where she found many of her other original mid-century pieces. "I really like that era," she explains, "it's the sort of furniture I have in my own flat – though not as much as I'd like, as the budget isn't that big." Perhaps that's not surprising, as she admits to blow-outs such as the £50 recently spent on an anglepoise lamp for one of her other dolls' houses: "It was so realistic I had to have it," she says enthusiastically, "it actually works and you can move the arm and it has a screw so you can fix it on to your desk." The lamp, made by a designer she met at the annual Kensington Dollshouse Festival, is about two inches high. The rationale? "There's just something about small things that's really nice."

Günter's passion for petite pieces began as a child, when her father made her a dolls house: "I was about six," she recalls, "and I spent years – until I was a teenager – filling it with things." One early quest for perfecting the realism of her creations was finding a technique to make miniature clothes hang authentically – in the bedroom (Guzzini-style globe floor lamp, tulip stool, wood-panelled walls) – a tiny shirt, which Günter made herself, lies crumpled on the mattress. "Hairspray and glue. That's how you get it to look like that," she explains. "Even as a child, it had to be perfect. For me, it was never about playing, it was about interior decoration."

She reignited her hobby three years ago in a rather circuitous fashion after coming across a book called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, based on the work of Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress and dolls-house collector with a passion for forensic science. The book features miniature reconstructions of particularly baffling crime scenes, which were used in Glessner Lee's 1940s lectures at Harvard's department of legal medicine, which the heiress founded in order to train detectives to read evidence more effectively. "I found the book really inspiring," Günter says, "I mean it's quite dark; there's lots of gore and murdered dolls, but it's lit and shot beautifully and everything in the scenes is perfect – even the locks on the doors work. And for me, that's the fascination – creating scenes in miniature that look realistic." The best compliment, she says, is when people see the photos of her creations she posts online, and mistake them for real homes.

Günter is part of a growing community of style-obsessed collectors who are shunning the traditionally twee pre-1900 styled dollhouses and creating miniature mid-century homes. The photo-sharing website Flickr has a group – Modern Miniatures – devoted to the hobby. Despite the small scale of each proudly displayed tableau, accessory or piece of furniture, there is no shortage of fodder for those in search of interiors porn: there are painstakingly reproduced George Nelson ball clocks, an Eames plywood elephant, a plethora of Verner Panton "S" chairs, several Hans Wenger-esque sofas and Stag-like bedroom suites. There are also tiny Andy Warhols, period-appropriate magazines and hand-painted vintage ceramics – the creativity and attention to detail is dazzling.

"You can furnish your dream house without worrying that the children will jump on the sofas; there won't be any dirty footprints and no one's going to interfere with your colour scheme," says Elaine Shaw, who designed and built "Clearview" – a gleaming white miniature modern townhouse with glass-fronted balconies, an open-plan staircase and a roof terrace.

Clearview is exquisitely styled. The white gloss fitted kitchen (hand-made by Elfminiatures.co.uk) has grey marble-look worktops and a stainless steel and glass extractor hood – but the room with the biggest wow-factor is the bedroom, with a fluffy, faux-fur rug, a white lacquered chandelier and a solid walnut bed, by New York-based designer (of full-size furniture too), Paris Renfroe. And the open-plan en suite really swings it: wood-clad walls, a 1/12-scale version of Eero Arnio's 1966 ball chair and contemporary white fittings – which Shaw made herself, from resin – including a free-standing bath; wall-hung, dual-flush toilet; a bidet and multi-jet shower.

"It's pure escapism and totally indulgent," she admits, "there's nothing useful about it." Shaw originally designed the house as a one-off, for herself, after being outbid on her dream Art Deco mini pad on Ebay (£460 was her limit – it went for £560). "I've never been so gutted over anything that totally didn't warrant it," she says, laughing at how idiotic her disappointment might sound.

So, as an ex-design student she decided to build her own, constructed after hours of architectural drawings, some MDF and the carcasses of several other dolls' houses. She now makes replicas of "Clearview", selling them via her company, Miaim, and has also begun designing furniture too, as there was little on the British market to suit the house.

But though Shaw says she sometimes has problems with "the superficiality of it all" (her real home, she admits, lies scruffy and neglected), there is a bigger picture to her work. "I'm not trying to make toys," she says. "These houses will become heirlooms in the future, just as many vintage versions are today: a dollhouse is a design time-capsule."

Tiny interiors – useful contacts

Miaim.co.uk Elaine Shaw sells her "Clearview" house – as an empty shell – for £395. She also makes and sells selected pieces including a battery-operated contemporary fireplace, £20, and a shower cubicle for £16.50

Elfminiatures.co.uk Former jewellery designer Elizabeth LePla now makes a vast range of hand-made dollshouse accessories and furniture and accessories – Annina Günter bought her sideboard there. One of LePla's specialities is bespoke fitted kitchens, which can go for up to £900.

Prdminiatures.com American furniture designer Paris Renfroe started making dollshouse pieces after people started clamouring for the 1:12-scale models he'd been making of his regular sized furniture.

Reacjapan.com This Japanese company specialises in designer chairs at 1:12 scale (the Vitra museum pieces, many of which look the same as Reac's, are too big for the average dollshouse).

Delphminiatures.co.uk You've got the house, got the designer furniture – now all you need are accessories: Delph sells everything from weeny bags of barbecue charcoal to teeny photo albums and burglar alarms.

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