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: Web Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?