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Dolls for grown-ups bring warmth to the customer experience

A doll by Jane Boyd used by The Drake Devonshire.

Nikolas Koenig

A man walks into a hotel room. He kicks off his shoes, spies the bed and then the lanky brunette lounging across the pillows. "Well, hello there," he says, and proceeds to get cozy.

Only in the movies, you say? Not entirely. At the Drake Devonshire, the country offshoot of Toronto's trendy Drake Hotel, the "in-room companion" is one of the advertised amenities. She's not flesh and blood, of course – things aren't that noir in Prince Edward County – she's a rag doll, adorned with knitted separates and a crude, woolly bedhead. But she does have a name: Merrill. Designed by Toronto-based artist Jane Boyd, the doll personifies an effort by the hotel brand to bring a little more warmth to the guest experience.

Dolls have always been a part of the Drake's painstakingly orchestrated demimonde. When the onetime railway hotel-cum-flophouse relaunched in 2004 as a boutique hotel under entrepreneur Jeff Stober, his creative team decorated some rooms with sock dolls by artist Seth Scrivner. They were a huge hit.

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"They were almost like a little friend in the room," recalls Ana Yuristy, director of the hotel operations at Drake properties. "They gave a sense of personality and personal touch. The whole idea of our hotel was that everything was interactive. The dolls made for a great experience."

Merrill made her debut at Drake Devonshire when it opened last autumn in Wellington, Ont., looking slightly like a harlot of another era with her embroidered arm tattoo and dishevelled dress. "She's not cute, like a teddy bear on the pillow," Yuristy says. "She's weird, so there's a conversation that happens around her."

As a decorating quirk, the dolls jibe with the Drake practice of installing unexpected art not only in its public spaces, but also in private ones. These pieces, however, are available for purchase ($65) at the front desk as souvenirs, and have gone on to fame in travel blogs and on Pinterest boards.

The Drake is clearly on to something. Dolls aren't just for kids' rooms any more. Since Scottish textile designer Donna Wilson began selling fanciful knitted creatures in design shops 12 years ago, people have been decorating with stuffed figures in lieu of cushions. Some of the vintage textiles that go into their making are so delicate that the pieces are almost exclusively meant for adults.

"These dolls work better for display as a family mascot, or are more suitable for older kids because of their high value and fragile materials," says Cristina Burgess, who carried dolls by California designer Jess Brown at her Toronto boutique, Augustina. "They work well when staging a shelving unit, as they lend shape, texture and life to a room. Lines like Jess Brown's give a heirloom quality to a look, with an emphasis on handicraft."

This handmade cachet – and the demand for design with provenance – has led to dolls by Brown and Irish native Kathryn Davey being picked up by retailers such as Anthropologie and ABC Carpet & Home, as emblems of their retreat from factory-made items. Brown says the first stores to stock her dolls were of the "home and lifestyle variety." And although many people suffer from pediophobia (fear of dolls) thanks to their place in the modern horror canon (some Drake guests ask for the dolls to be removed from their room, Yuristy says), most people get great satisfaction from frippery with a face.

And not just aesthetic satisfaction. Adrienne Gibb, whose stuffed-animal label Fabricawakuwaku (an Italian-Japanese mash-up that translates as "excitement factory") imbues her dolls with what she calls the "psychoanalytic charge" of fetish objects.

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"I'm interested in exploring the hidden meanings attached to the doll, replacing repressed emotions with tactility, like a kind of stuffed fabric collage," says the Ottawa-based artist, whose dolls have been used to decorate psychologists' offices. "People respond primally to anthropomorphized creatures – they touch conscious and subconscious nerves, and something about the vintage fabrics I use seems to really appeal."

By distancing her works from factory-produced goods and recasting them as objects of worship, like fertility dolls of yore, Gibb says she aims to transform the archetypal doll in the manner of a Surrealist artist. Draping her creations in fur offcuts (much as Swiss-German Surrealist Méret Oppenheim once covered tableware with gazelle fur), she elevates the everyday object into something desirable. Several years ago, the Drake began dressing its beds with her Hairy Chest Men dolls, which Gibb dresses in pleather codpieces and lambswool gilets. The bondage-inspired dolls have since become popular "coming out" presents in the gay community.

Boyd sees her "modern-day heirlooms" as "something tangible that people can relate to daily, whether that be emotional or psychological. With today's sterile, high-tech homes, artisan dolls add a personal grounded dimension. … They seem to fill whatever need is required."

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