Whiteladies House. Moray Thomas, England, 1935. (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

An exhibition of dollhouses teases out the cultural shifts that happened alongside architectural changes. 

The Whiteladies House looks a bit like the younger cousin of Le Corbusier’s concrete Villa Savoye, completed five years prior just outside of Paris. Both are stark white, simultaneously sloping and angular. The former debuted in 1936 at The Building Center in London. Not just its blueprint, or a rendering—the whole house. It fit on top of a table.

Whiteladies is a dollhouse exactingly built by Moray Thomas, who outfitted it with shrunken versions of contemporary furniture, and lively, colorful paintings reminiscent of pictures by Gauguin and Matisse. The cream-colored house and its décor reflected the life-sized zeitgeist of the period between the wars. A zippy sports car, tennis court, and swimming pool—with bathers poised to dive—flag this as a home for people who appreciate leisure, and “excellently illustrate modern social habits and their architectural expression,” according to the museum’s 1937 annual report.

Whiteladies House. Moray Thomas, England, 1935. (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Whiteladies—and the 11 other historical dollhouses currently on display at the National Building Museum in the exhibition, Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse—aren’t just kids’ stuff. The homes, which span 300 years, trace how the habits of domestic life shifted alongside architectural tides.

Peering at these scaled-down worlds, all from the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, give viewers a window into the cultural moment that saw their creation. Some attest to the idea of home as women’s domain, writ large. At the time Thomas built Whiteladies, there were only 130 women registered as architects in all of England. In an era in which women were unlikely to be architects, many devoted their ingenuity to diminutive versions of structures they weren’t encouraged to design on a human scale.

Other artists used dollhouses as a way to create a scrapbook of their own lives while also situating them in a broader cultural context. Over the course of 50 years, Roma Hopkinson painstakingly recreated the ephemera of WWII-era England in exacting detail: small portraits of her family are fastened in frames and photo albums; gas masks are snug in their cases; ration books are stacked in the kitchen. The resulting dollhouse (below) is both a tribute to her family’s experience and a record of an international crisis.

Hopkinson House (set in 1940s). England, 1980s-1990s (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The styles of the dollhouses also map on to changing building patterns. The ubiquity of high-rise apartment buildings is evident in the stacking style that flourished in the 1960s. Décor was different, but habits were, too: Instead of sprawling estates dotted with tennis courts and swimming pools, residents had confined quarters, and TVs suggested a more sedentary and solitary way to pass the time.

Jennys Home. Tri-ang, Northern Ireland, 1960s (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The most recent example, produced in 2001 by a high-end U.S. toy company, is flooded with neon light and full of modular furniture and translucent accents, as well as microscopic versions of work by the artists Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Mel Bochner, and others. It’s easy to imagine it as an automated space controlled via app. As the contours of domestic life continue to be redrawn, the dollhouse—its idealized counterpart—will morph, too. 

Kaleidoscope House. Laurie Simmons, Peter Wheelwright and Bozart, USA, 2001 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

“Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse” is on view at the National Building Museum through January 22, 2017.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Berlin Will Freeze Rents for Five Years

    Local lawmakers agreed to one of Europe’s most radical rental laws, but it sets the stage for a battle with Germany’s national government.

  2. A photo of a new apartment building under construction in Boston.
    Equity

    In Massachusetts, a ‘Paper Wall’ of Zoning Is Blocking New Housing

    Despite the area’s progressive politics, NIMBY-minded residents in and around Boston are skilled in keeping multi-family housing at bay.

  3. A photo of Madrid's Gran Via
    Environment

    Is This the End of the Road for Madrid’s Car Ban?

    With more conservative leadership moving in after elections, the Spanish capital’s pollution-fighting regulations on private vehicles may be in danger.

  4. A photo of a Google employee on a bicycle.
    Equity

    How Far Will Google’s Billion-Dollar Bay Area Housing Plan Go?

    The single largest commitment by a private employer to address the Bay Area’s acute affordable housing crisis is unique in its focus on land redevelopment.

  5. Environment

    Paris Wants to Grow ‘Urban Forests’ at Famous Landmarks

    The city plans to fill some small but treasured sites with trees—a climate strategy that may also change the way Paris frames its architectural heritage.

×