Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
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—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.
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.
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.
“Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse” is on view at the National Building Museum through January 22, 2017.