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. Transportation

    A Horrifying Glimpse Into Your Dystopian Future Transit Commute

    A comic artist’s take on what the future of transportation might really feel like.

  2. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why Asking for Bike Lanes Isn't Smart

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  3. Uber Eats worker
    Life

    The Millennial Urban Lifestyle Is About to Get More Expensive

    As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.

  4. Two men look over city plans at a desk in an office.
    Equity

    The Doomed 1970s Plan to Desegregate New York’s Suburbs

    Ed Logue was a powerful agent of urban renewal in New Haven, Boston, and New York City. But his plan to build low-income housing in suburbia came to nought.

  5. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

×