Skip to main content

The metaverse is cool but collecting masterpieces in the miniverse is what’s really powering up our feel-good senses

Phillip Nuveen paints a miniature chair in his studio in New York in 2016.IKE EDEANI/The New York Times

Scrolling through the Instagram account of New York-based artist Phillip Nuveen reveals a high-end, Lilliputian wonderland. A diminutive Louis Vuitton duffle bag dangles off a pinky finger. Stacks of wee Hermès boxes that could barely hold a zipper, never mind an entire purse, wait to be opened. Mannequins model clothes in a Bergdorf showroom that even Barbie would tower over.

“My brain kind of lives in that world,” Nuveen says of his high-end unsanctioned creations, which are created purely for artistic purposes versus his other natty e-commerce offerings.

Increasingly, so do many other people’s – at least part of the time. Miniatures – small-scale replicas of everything from food to household items – and their makers are having a major moment. The hashtag #miniatures has more than one billion views on TikTok, and miniature-themed aggregate accounts on Instagram boast hundreds of thousands of followers (@dailymini, for example, has 228,000). It makes sense: Given the unending onslaught of political and cultural calamity these days, it’s fair to say that our yen to inhabit imagined worlds is stronger than ever. The make-believe yet tangible realm of miniatures offers a charming counterpoint to more digital forms of escapism – a miniverse as opposed to a metaverse. They provide a sense of comfort, fantasy and control and – perhaps most importantly – they’re adorable.

Nuveen displays miniature luxury shopping bags.IKE EDEANI/The New York Times

“Cuteness may help to facilitate well-being and complex social relationships by activating brain networks associated with emotion and pleasure and triggering empathy and compassion,” notes a study by Morten L. Kringelbach, associate professor and senior research fellow in neuroscience at the University of Oxford. “When we encounter something cute, it ignites fast brain activity in regions such as the orbitofrontal cortex, which are linked to emotion and pleasure.”

Nuveen certainly gets joy from his work. “I was always enamoured with building Lego, and putting things together,” he says. He was in his early twenties when he got the inclination to try his hand at making miniature pieces in a more purposeful way. His style was finessed over time as he followed more modern-leaning makers and began to catch the attention of his clients – a roster that now includes Miu Miu, Coach, Harry Winston and other luxury heavy-hitters.

In recent years, Merida Anderson, an accomplished ceramicist, took up crafting spectacularly small food on commission.Courtesy of Merida Anderson

Nuveen’s swish pieces differ from the more classic examples of miniatures we know, such as twee dollhouse decor. His oeuvre features fashionable handbags, high-end furniture and other objets that would appeal to fans of luxurious design; available for purchase on his website are minuscule blown sculptural vases and loveseats that would look right at home in any deluxe contemporary space.

“I saw an opening for it, and there’s a market which clearly keeps me employed,” says Nuveen, who takes commissions.

Anderson showcases their wares on Instagram.Courtesy of Merida Anderson

He also showed off his skills as one of 11 competitors in the currently streaming series Best in Miniature on CBC Gem. He wowed the cast with his handiwork by creating a tony tiny townhouse; the judges were particularly enamoured with the materials and details of its decadent bathroom, complete with spa-style rolled linens and potted plants.

“It was exciting for me to appreciate these different elements and styles being executed at this level,” says Best in Miniature judge and interior designer Micheal Lambie. Along with co-host and miniature expert Emma Waddell, he was tasked with deciding which designs – ranging throughout the series from flower arrangements to several rooms of a house – passed muster in terms of both construction and creativity. Initially, Lambie was unsure how well challenges would be executed given the tight time constraints. Even more so when miniature-makers turned to upcycling – another buzzy concept – in crafting their wares.

A scene from Best in Miniature on CBC Gem.Courtesy of CBC Gem

“I’m a massive advocate of ‘think outside the box,’” Waddell says. One of her first glimpses into a miniaturist’s anything-goes attitude was when her grandfather used fringe from her grandmother’s lamp as part of the cabin decoration in one of his model boats.

The ingenuity on display seems to have resonated with viewers, who can look forward to a second season. Waddell shares: “I’ve been stopped by lots of people who have said, ‘I’ve never done this before but I watched the show and it inspired me to have a go.’”

Demonstrating skills in woodworking, painting, embroidery and more, miniature-makers are truly craftspeople extraordinaire. And in a time when more of us are coming to appreciate what goes into the creation of the things we encounter in our daily lives, it’s arguable that watching how miniatures are made is a PG-level thrill. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the show is the breadth of aesthetic styles and expertise.

Michael Lambie and Emma Waddell in Best in Miniature.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Other notable Canadian names in the Canadian miniature world include Edmonton’s Tina MacDonald and Calgary’s Tom Brown (whom Julie Van Rosendaal profiled for this paper in 2020).

Artist Jenna Faye Powell, who recently had paintings on show at Patel Brown Gallery in Toronto, lists “miniature enthusiast” on her social media bio. She was introduced to the craft by her model-railroader father, but later took it into new dimensions – literally. “Miniatures became really prevalent in my practice when I was doing my masters,” Powell says. She started by creating expansive diorama scenes to photograph. “Then I would project the photographs, and then paint from the projections.”

For Merida Anderson, an accomplished ceramicist based in Montreal, it was the pandemic that spurred fresh ideas after having fashioned miniatures in their youth. Once COVID-19 restrictions forced them to spend time at home with a mini-wheel instead of at their studio, a bitsy-centric brainwave was sparked. They took up crafting spectacularly small foods on commission, which are showcased on the Instagram account @tiny_snx. (Commissions are closed until September after an exceptionally busy few months.) “The first thing I did make was a hamburger because that’s basically what I made when I was a kid,” Anderson says.

Miniature expert and co-host of Best in Miniature Emma Waddell.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Their diminutive portfolio is “definitely more gift-oriented.” People reach out to have all manner of mouthfuls made, including risotto – the hardest item Anderson says they’ve had to make – an everything bagel, and a cornucopia of fruit and veg.

As to why their cute cuisine has had such a warm reception, Anderson says: “I think it’s really nice to be able to give something to somebody that is handmade, very specific to that person – and also useless. Like, the sole purpose of it is just to go, ‘Wow.’ I think that’s really special.”

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.