Watch: Kiwi mum’s elaborate lockdown doll’s house design for daughter

When I was aged 3 my father made me a doll’s house.

Meticulously painted in blue and white, from the outside it was a perfect plywood confection of tiny balusters and lacework, mullioned windows and faux-slate roofing tiles, return verandas and little doors that opened into … well, not much, actually. The interior was as barren as an empty beer crate.

Maybe Dad exhausted his creativity on the exterior detail or somehow expected my imagination to furnish the bare, splintery rooms. Whatever. It was fine.

I stepped up to the plate: I peopled the place with various mismatched dolls and odd boxes for furniture. It was fine. It was decades ago. It barely left a mark.

But who would have thought, back then, that interiors would come to matter so much?

Yes, 2020, I’m looking at you.

That villainous year that had us cowering inside, trying to fit all the spiky, inconvenient bits of our lives into a finite number of rooms.

Locked up in lockdown with a soon-to-be 3-year-old of my own; of course, it was time for the doll’s house to come slouching out of the attic to be reborn!

Although, to be honest, once stripped of its bubble wrap cocoon, the little house looked virtually unused – outside paint bright as Monday, and the interior still as vacant as the Siberian tundra. So what better use for lockdown than to fill that yawning void, right?

Now, before the armchair analysts among you nod sagely at the theory that decorating a doll’s house during a pandemic is an obvious and understandable reaction to a loss of control in the wider environment, let me stop you and propose that maybe I simply wanted to add some value of my own. Maybe I thought my daughter should have a more complete product.

This would be a breeze, surely, given my infinite access to the web and all its treasures – I mean spare a thought for my poor parents – when they bought the doll’s house kitset via mail order, the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in the multiverse’s eye.

So down the rabbit hole we go… and the first thing you find is that people have been obsessing over miniature dwellings long before lockdown, and spending literally millions on dolly mansions.

Check out the Astolat Castle Dollhouse at a cool $8.5 million, for a contemporary example, or the doll’s house of Petronella Oortman, a 17th-century extravaganza on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, complete with hand-painted ceiling frescoes and miniature paintings by Dutch masters hanging on its sumptuously decorated walls.

The point being that doll’s houses were not originally designed to be a garden of earthly delights for a child’s imagination; they were created as displays of earthly wealth, born out of the rise of the merchant classes of the European Renaissance, often replicating in expensive miniature the owner’s house and possessions.

Particularly popular in the Netherlands and Germany, some of the world’s most opulent doll’s houses were later made by northern European craftspeople in the 17th and 18th centuries. And no sticky-fingered 3-year-old would ever have been allowed to bulldoze through these exquisitely outfitted china shops.

But around the same time, another form of doll’s house came into existence; one that did allow for a little girl’s interaction, although in a fairly limited way. The so-called Nuremberg kitchen was a utilitarian all-metal miniature designed for mothers to instruct their daughters in the running of a household: How to set out your kitchen, what to do with the servants, how best to please the master of the house, etc. Not really any kind of free-flowing fantasy play.

That had to wait until the 19th century and the onset of industrialisation when mass production started to bring doll’s houses to the masses. Finally, the idea of them as toys caught on and generations of little (and not-so-little) girls let their imaginations run riot with their houses full of tiny families (well, those who had doll’s houses with a modicum of internal finishing did, at any rate…)

Another lesson from the net, however, might help to explain the tenement-like interior of my dollhouse – apparently, the latter half of the 20th century saw a drop-off in popularity of doll’s houses, for no easily discernible reason – maybe the Barbie invasion? Feminism?

Who can say, but what is also clear is that their popularity has been on the rise again since the 1980s, and doll’s house miniature stuff is big business these days.

Except maybe not so much on the home-decorating side. The internet has furniture and dolls aplenty, but where is the Mitre 10 Micro for DIY dolly? Real wallpaper and carpets are just too… well, big… and who knows where you find Lilliputian electricals!

So, mothers being the mothers of invention, it became a case of making do – again.

Spotlight has a handy little selection of craft papers just crying out to be turned into wallpaper and kitchen and lounge flooring; their LED lights designed for floral bouquets transform quite nicely into mini-chandeliers too.

Sample pieces of roller blinds make pretty good wall-to-wall carpet, and images of antique rugs I found on the net can be printed on to fabric if you glue it to A4 paper to fool the home printer. Room followed room until it was, at last, the doll’s house I would have killed for.

Except for one thing: Dolls and their doll-ery.

It turns out, economies of scale actually mean economies of scale. Mass production of toys has meant the dominant size of doll’s house people and furniture is now 1/12 scale. That’s all very well, but no one seems to have told my doll’s house this. Its scale is conveniently placed at some random point between this and 1/24.

But you know what? Three-year-olds don’t care about accurate scale. My little monster was so amazed at the doll’s house on her birthday she literally fell over (see the video) and instantly started describing the doll world now at her fingertips – happily in the Goldilocks territory between an oversupply of dolly decoration and a collection of barren cells.

So, the year was good for something, after all.

A happy toddler who will never know what an empty doll’s house feels like. And it’s entirely possible I might have to pop into the house myself, every now and again, just to tidy up, you understand…

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