December 2006 Issue
A Small World
Collectors clamor for the Lilliputian items made by these artistic Ohioans.
Some adults do it to recreate their youth - or create a youth they never had. Others do it to conjure up a world in which they have total control.
But whatever the reason, collecting dolls, dollhouse furniture and accessories isn't child's play. According to Terrence Lynch, editor of Boston-based Dollhouse Miniatures magazine, the stuff hard-core collectors are hooked on is way too expensive for most young kids to even touch. And the number of people willing to spend big money on the littlest odds and ends - Lynch estimates their numbers in the tens of thousands - continues to make the dollhouse-miniature business a lucrative one for artisans with the ability to work in fractions of an inch.
Jill Dianne Peters' foray into painting dollhouse furniture began on a whim, with the purchase of a kit for a little boy's bedroom at a Kirtland tearoom and gift shop. The Aurora muralist was fascinated by the very size of the bed, armoire and nightstand.
"It was so charming," the 49-year-old mother of two sons remembers. "I painted antique toys on the front of the armoire, and I made my own tiny quilt, all of separate pieces. I took the set back to the shop to get hinges for the armoire, and they asked to buy it."
Today, Peters commands up to $1,400 for a single 7-inch-high Cinderella-themed armoire with doors featuring a painting of the fairy-tale character in front of her pumpkin-turned-coach and a top-drawer front bearing the words, "Once upon a time..."
"People who aren't collectors, usually the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, 'You can buy a big one for that,'" she says with amusement. She orders museum-quality Victorian, Edwardian and Louis XIV reproductions from San Francisco-based Bespaq Furniture, then elaborately refinishes/repaints and reupholsters the 1-inch-scale pieces.
The attention to detail is excruciating. Peters talks about painting cotton duck to produce "tapestry" upholstery, making her own cording, and wetting and blow-drying bedding so it will look softer and more "used." Instead of simply staining a piece, she finishes it in layers of paint and stain to conceal raised or prominent wood grains - a full-scale feature that detracts from the miniature's appearance.
"I'll sculpt and glue greens, fairies, swans or roses right onto the frame so it looks like a more elaborately carved piece," she adds.
Over the years, Peters' repertoire has expanded to include tiny reproductions of paintings by 18th-century French Rococo artists Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard, wall and ceiling murals painted on thin wood templates supplied by customers ("they glue them right on the walls, just like wallpaper") and toys for the dollhouse nursery. The playthings run the gamut from a 2-1/2-inch Humpty Dumpty doll with sculpted head, hands and feet, blown-glass eyes and silver-charm shoes to a 3-1/2-inch-square "tabletop theater" with a ballerina - an antique pendant strung up as a puppet -- that can be lowered onto the stage.
But she is best known for her nursery sets, fanciful creations featuring cradles, cribs and youth beds frothing with lace-trimmed bedding and armoires featuring her own interpretations of scenes from popular nursery rhymes, fairy tales and lullabies. There are even mass-produced wire reproductions of antique strollers, each of which Jill Dianne repaints to look like wood, wicker and/or wrought iron and outfits with a sculpted flower-like umbrella shading the seat and a little animal attached above the wheel.
Peters insists that "it's just as easy to paint real tiny as it is to paint real huge." But the woman who can reproduce a famous painting on a canvas the size of a matchbook cover admits to being so klutzy that she has to use polymer clay when sculpting. "I have to work with something that bounces if I drop it," she says with a chuckle.
A.J. and Nancy Quinby's successful miniature-making business, Nantasy Fantasy, is rooted in the reality of a very lean holiday season in 1979 - so lean, in fact, that the Eastlake insurance salesman and his photo-lab technician wife didn't have gifts for their two young daughters.
"We went to a fruit stand a friend of ours owned and gathered up orange crates, and my husband made 40 pieces of Barbie-doll-sized furniture for them," Nancy, now 59, recalls. Photographs of the doll furniture prompted a request for a nautical-themed jewelry box from a friend in California who knew A.J. was into woodcarving. And the photos of the jewelry box - an elaborate 1/2-inch-scale seaside scene with jewelry storage hidden inside the fishing shack - generated an order from the wife of the Quinbys' eye doctor for a 1/2-inch-scale model of the couple's Chardon home.
"That's what started us on the miniatures path," Nancy says. The couple's brochures are now dominated by art-school-grad Nancy's lifelike dolls, luggage and trunks and A.J.'s replicas of 19th-century musical instruments, gramophones, sewing machines, telephones and cameras.
Nancy's "Little People," which go for up to $800 for a single figure, are all hand-sculpted of polymer clay and dressed in wigs and clothing of her own making. While her stock is heavy on Victorian characters - maids and butlers are popular - she offers everything from cowboys and Indians on horseback to bag ladies and modern-day punks to witches and wizards, "just about anything you can imagine." The faces don't all sport rosy cheeks and smiles, either. The butcher looks fierce, the laundresses fatigued, the charwoman strained by the weight of the bucket she's trying to lift. "When I worked in the photo lab, I saw lots and lots of very interesting characters," she says. "I draw from my memory of that, too."
Among A.J.'s favorite references are copies of old Sears Roebuck catalogs ("They give measurements"), among his favorite materials, a stash of nails. The 62-year-old retiree explains that he smashes them with a hammer, then fashions the little pieces into whatever parts he can't buy ready made - golf-club heads and rifle triggers, for example. He uses only two tools: a small, high-speed hand drill and a grinder equipped with a sanding disk. The results net high praise from shop owners who line up early at wholesale shows just to browse at his tables and dealers from as far away as Australia and Japan who wait up to a year for an order to be filled. His most expensive item is a $700 contrabassoon, a rare item on the miniatures market that he makes six at a time in a week. Not bad for a guy with no artistic or mechanical training whatsoever.
"It's kind of a gift," he says modestly of his ability. "If I look at something, and if I can visualize it in miniature, then I can make it." The only exceptions he's encountered are brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones. "I don't have the equipment to do that."
Some of A.J.'s items have moveable parts - the drawer on the cash register opens and closes, the crank on the coffee grinder goes 'round and 'round, the wooden sewing-machine cover can be removed. He's particularly proud of the fact that his musical instruments are strung with stainless-steel wire, not the fishing line some competitors use. But he warns buyers not to touch the strings because they're so delicate. In fact, few of his items are fully functional for that very reason.
"When collectors ask, 'Can you make this work?' I say, 'Well, I could. But what's the point? You'll break it.'"
pots and plants
Glenna Carter entered the world of dollhouse miniatures in August 2005, after neighbor Nancy Quinby's sister suggested she start working on a dollhouse for her new granddaughter. The jolly 58-year-old Eastlake resident, who had dabbled in different arts and crafts over the years, was hooked after completing one furniture kit.
Soon she was thinking about accessories, including houseplants. Without so much as consulting a book or Internet site on the subject, she made two variegated philodendrons and a snake plant by drawing each leaf on thin paper, then painting, cutting, wiring and arranging them in 3/4-inch clay pots filled with Styrofoam. Glenna then showed the plants to Nancy's sister, who suggested she take them to a meeting of the Geauga Miniature Society and ask members for suggestions on improving them.
"One of the ladies wanted to know how much I wanted for them!" Glenna remembers, still astounded by the offer.
Since that time Glenna has begun making ivy, hostas, bonsais, poinsettias, rubber plants, ferns, potted palms and cacti. The latter are sculpted of clay and painted an appropriate shade of green. For variety, she makes beaded macrame hanging-plant holders and her own colorful clay pots.
Retail prices for her wares, which are sold at The Miniature Cellar in Chesterland, range from $14 for a garden-variety tabletop houseplant to $25 for a wheelbarrow or child's red wagon containing three hostas. While she says her plants look real enough that "you want to water them," they aren't picture perfect. "I don't have the patience for that," she says.