Joe Haupt

A Model Life

Chris Stokel-Walker visits those living at 1:12 scale.

Whole weekends of my childhood — even before my granddad retired — were spent in my grandparents’ garage, turning lathes, pushing wood through saws, and working drills. I made a lot of toys as part of the deal, and learned the basics of woodworking. But my granddad had been at it for years, and still is: he carefully crafted a chest and an envelope opener out of beech just this past Christmas.

He didn’t just produce toys for me. He made doll’s houses, and sold them to a local model store. It’s something that skilled craftspeople have been making for centuries. The store to which he sold his houses doesn’t exist anymore, a victim of the ever-increasing encroachment of videogames into kids’ lives. But some still hold out, even as doll’s houses’ popularity decreases.

Those customers who remain loyal buy big, though. Dave Simpson runs Maple Street Collectables, a UK-based store selling doll’s houses and the furniture to go inside them. “One woman bought 90 houses from us in a single transaction, for six figures,” he says. And the highest-quality houses can cost £50,000 ($80,000), which is enough money for a competitive mortgage on an actual, full-scale building to inhabit. Simpson reckons the doll’s house market in the UK is worth £50 million ($80 million) a year.

There are two major customers who buy doll’s houses, Simpson explains: those buying a toy for their children, determined not to give into the onrush of polygons and the perpetual distraction of second screens; and collectors, mainly elderly women. “Every doll’s house is a collector’s cabinet,” he notes, lit by the dim light of a tiny golden chandelier.

And though interior design fashion may change with the times, doll’s house furniture does not. You won’t find many modern minimalist designs with 1:12 scale plasma TVs pinned to the wall as fashion froze 70 years ago. No collector wants to be reminded of his dingy 1960s home with its mud brown veneers or of her orange paisley wallpaper, Simpson reasons. Edwardian, Victorian, and Georgian designs reach from basement to bedroom. It’s an aspirational lifestyle writ small.

Some of the items can be pricey. A handmade sideboard or dresser can cost as much as a full-sized one. The amount of work that goes into such furniture is as great, if not more, than a full-scale piece because of the intricacy required. But the onset of Chinese imports split the market in the 1990s, says Simpson. Now there are two ends of the market: the entry-level, mass-produced products imported from China on one end, and the boutique handmade items from European craftsmen like my grandfather on the other.

My grandfather spent hours with his head inside four small walls on long winter nights, tinkering with the electrics as they wound their way behind plasterboard and under floors. And he did so for good reason: to spread the joy that comes from seeing and playing with a whole working home shrunk down to a Lilliputian size.

Because, though collectors say they are collecting, many of them play. Mute old women living alone become ladies of the house, with servants and dumb waiters and bells to call their staff. They dine on fine china and entertain in drawing rooms. “People build up their own lifestyle inside the house, inhabiting its walls,” says Simpson. “It’s like a 3D book.”

There is, of course, a hugely successful video game franchise dedicated to spinning out stories in a house of your own making. You can even scrub it clean with a click of a mouse and build anew. But there’s something comforting about the tiny array of scale furniture, a shrunken-down window into a bijou world, that has lasted through the centuries. Tangible objects delight where pushing pixels can’t, even for an old man who can do both.

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, Tumblr, and BuzzFeed. He still can’t quite believe he’s getting paid to do professionally what he’s spent the 23 previous years of his life doing for free: finding a topic he knows nothing about (but which holds interest), immersing himself in it, then telling everyone who’ll listen about what he’s learnt.

Jemma Jade Saare is one of the subjects of Chris’s article, “Some of Their Parts

Chris is a regular contributor to The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical with long-form articles of interest to curious people with a technical bent. His most recent feature was about the business and lifestyle of body-part models.

Banner photo by Joe Haupt.