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With interest in design now so widespread and little stigma in collecting what some might think of as objects from childhood, high-end dollhouses are flourishing. (Paris Renfroe)
With interest in design now so widespread and little stigma in collecting what some might think of as objects from childhood, high-end dollhouses are flourishing. (Paris Renfroe)

Miniature houses give adults opportunity to play out their design fantasies Add to ...

David Adjaye is one of the world’s most famous living architects, and one of his houses could be yours for a little more than $2,000. Or perhaps you’re a fan of Zaha Hadid, a winner of the Prtizker Architecture Prize – the Nobel of the profession. Her house could be yours for less than $20,000.

But don’t think you can move in.

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Adjaye, Hadid and 18 other top architects have each designed and built dollhouses that are being auctioned online to raise money for KIDS, a London charity that works with disabled children. The project, called A Doll’s House, was launched at the city’s design festival last month, and the houses will be auctioned off on Nov. 11.

The current bid on the house by Adjaye’s firm is £1,250 (more than $2,000). The bid on Hadid’s house sits at £9,000.

The project was initiated by Cathedral Group, a U.K.-based developer, who gave the architects free rein, with two caveats: the total footprint could be no larger than 750 by 750 milimetres, and each house had to include one feature to help a disabled child.

“Nobody I asked said no,” says Martyn Evans, creative director at Cathedral Group. “I think it just captured people’s imagination.”

Few adults would give Barbie’s Dreamhouse or a miniature Victorian a second look, but many will shell out large sums for architectural dollhouses that can be outfitted with tiny furniture replicas. With interest in design now so widespread and little stigma in collecting what some might think of as objects from childhood, high-end dollhouses are flourishing. These miniatures aren’t mere playthings, but an outlet for interior design. There are blogs dedicated to these pieces, companies around the world that make them and passionate collectors.

“When you’re a child, to play house, it’s your own little world and it’s where you’re safest. And [a dollhouse] is your own little private one,” Evans says. “I think we never lose that enjoyment of the power of creating our own environment.”

Las Vegas-based designer and builder Paris Renfroe began crafting miniatures in 2002 as a way to show clients concepts for his full-scale work. As the blogosphere discovered his pieces, he was flooded with inquiries from collectors. He now makes everything from 1:12-scale “pods” that are replicas of actual shipping containers with window walls to a wide range of miniature furniture (his sofas range from $85 to $250).

Renfroe, who eschews the term dollhouse because it’s gendered and potentially infantilizing, says his miniature work is so popular that it now finances his full-scale work.

“They just love design,” Renfroe says of his clients, one of whom paid $6,000 for a miniature hotel suite. But, of course, not everyone has the money or time to purchase a modern home and furnish it with custom pieces that reflect their dream aesthetic. “This is their escape,” Renfroe says.

Christine Ferrara, who runs the blog Call of the Small, has 19 dollhouses in her collection. “It’s interior design on a much smaller scale,” says Ferrara, a mother of three who oversees public affairs at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., where past faculty include Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“What helps it resonate is just the level of architectural integrity,” she says of the appeal of modern dollhouses. “There’s a very high standard among collectors.”

An auction held earlier this year to raise money for the UCLA Children’s Discovery and Innovation Institute at Mattel Children’s Hospital showed just how high that standard can be. One of the houses was decorated with a scale model of a Mies van der Rohe 1930 Barcelona daybed, while others featured a Paul Smith rug and curtains made from Missoni fabric. Each of the 10 houses sold for $10,000.

Christopher Leonard, concept designer at Dexter Moren Associates, one of the architecture firms that designed a house for the KIDS auction, compares the appeal of dollhouses to that of architectural models.

“Architectural models are fun to look at because you’ve got a bird’s-eye view of it,” he says.

But for collectors such as Ferrara, dollhouses and the high quality pieces made for them provide the chance for much more than passive looking. They give people the opportunity to design interiors they might not have the means to do in full scale, she says.

“It is about using it as spaces where you could create environments,” Ferrara says. “You really have the freedom to experiment and envision a new environment.”

Her three children, the oldest of whom is 13, are allowed to play with her dollhouses. But, says, Ferrara, “There are parameters.”

Renfroe guesses that most collectors don’t let children touch their dollhouses.

“I’m sure some people allow their kids to play with it if they’re careful,” he says. “But most of the ones I know wouldn’t dare, just because it’s too personal to them.”

Dollhouses as we know them today first emerged in the 16th century. Cabinet makers constructed them for the European aristocracy. Complete with furniture and stylized interiors, they were too prized, not to mention too delicate, for children to play with.

It was only during the Industrial Revolution and the First World War that dollhouses were made for kids. Perhaps the most famous was built by architect Edwin Lutyens, who created a 1:12 scale house for Queen Mary in the early 1920s. More than 1,500 people helped make it, including 700 artists and 250 craftspeople. Standing three feet high, the house boasts a library, fully stocked wine cellar, electricity, running hot and cold water and toilets that flush.

Mass-produced dollhouses reached a milestone when Barbie’s Dreamhouse hit the market in 1960, a year after the doll was born.

HISTORY

Dollhouses as we know them today first emerged in the 16th century. Cabinet makers constructed them for the European aristocracy. Complete with furniture and stylized interiors, they were too prized, not to mention too delicate, for children to play with.

It was only during the Industrial Revolution and the First World War that dollhouses were made for kids. Perhaps the most famous was built by architect Edwin Lutyens, who created a 1:12 scale house for Queen Mary in the early 1920s. More than 1,500 people helped make it, including 700 artists and 250 craftspeople. Standing three feet high, the house boasts a library, fully stocked wine cellar, electricity, running hot and cold water and toilets that flush.

Mass-produced dollhouses reached a milestone when Barbie’s Dreamhouse hit the market in 1960, a year after the doll was born.

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

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