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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links