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The Dollhouses of Instagram - The New York Times


The kitchen that Jessica Coffee designed checked all the trendy boxes: white Shaker cabinets, a subway-tile backsplash, wide oak-plank floors and an open-concept floor plan, with views into the living room’s shiplap walls. The photographs she posted on her Instagram page evoked enthusiastic comments from followers, who gushed about high-end details like the water filler above the stove.

The only drawback? Ms. Coffee, 40, can’t actually serve a meal in her kitchen, at least not a real one, because the room, like the rest of the house, is built to a 1:12 scale — that 36-inch chef’s stove is actually three inches long. It’s in a dollhouse that sits in the real-life master bedroom of her home in Walla Walla, Wash., which looks nothing like her amazing tiny one.

“People are always like, ‘Ooh! I would like to see your real house.’ No you wouldn’t. I live in a house that is barely 1,000 square feet with three kids and a Great Dane,” said Ms. Coffee, who sells her miniature designs and posts online tutorials at Jessica Cloe Miniatures. “My dollhouse square footage is much better than my actual square footage.”

Ms. Coffee is among a growing community of artisans who have turned the craft of dollhouse making into an exercise in aspirational home design on an itty-bitty scale, with their tiny rooms and furnishings displayed on well-curated Instagram accounts with glossy photographs and videos set to music reminiscent of “The Fixer Upper” on HGTV. Scroll too quickly, or miss the photograph with a human-scale hand surreally poking into the scene, and a viewer might confuse the image for a real-life one, the type of image that leaves you feeling equally amazed by and envious of the enormous kitchen island with a soapstone countertop.

These dollhouse makers and collectors say we’ve entered a miniature Renaissance. Call it a Mini-Aissance. “We’re living in it now,” said Kate Esme Ünver, who curates miniatures on her Instagram page Dailymini, and is the author of the 2019 book “The Book of Mini: Inside the Big World of Tiny Things.”

Social media has turned what was once a niche hobby into a decidedly trendy and increasingly profitable business, making it easier for artisans to find each other and potential customers online. The Instagram hashtag #dollhouse has 1.65 million posts and #miniature has almost 4.3 million, a mix of posts from people making miniatures and those sharing what they’ve found. Victorian-era lace and antique armoires are being scrapped for midcentury modern chairs, fiddle-leaf fig plants and sputnik chandeliers. House Beautiful took notice and commissioned 11 interior designers to reimagine a Victorian dollhouse in their own style, auctioning the decidedly contemporary finished products at the New York Design Center on Feb. 27.

In the past six months, searches on Etsy for 1:12 scale furniture were up 39 percent and searches for dollhouse rugs and miniature items were up 20 percent from the same period a year ago. A search on the site for dollhouses yields 237,000 results. “It’s certainly a trend that’s rising,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, an Etsy trend expert. The popular items — miniature succulents, bath salts, word art — point to an interest from the grown-ups, not their children. “Maybe there are very sophisticated 10-year-olds out there who want a midcentury sofa, but I assume these are adults who want to take this on as a new hobby.”

Chris Toledo, 34, who showcases his diminutive creations on the Instagram account I Build Small Things, has watched his business soar in the past two years thanks to social media. He now sells his dollhouses, designed in a nod to the 1920s architecture of Los Angeles, where he lives, for $150,000 to $200,000 apiece.

“Before, miniatures were only publicized through miniature magazines,” he said. “Social media put it in everybody’s face.” His homes feature intricately detailed rooms, like a kitchen with a subway-tile backsplash and a schoolhouse pendant light that would look real if it weren’t for the life-size head of garlic positioned in the middle of the room.

While some artisans specialize in furnishings and décor, Mr. Toledo focuses on the architecture, selling complete dollhouses as well as individual rooms — like a bathroom in a shadow box — for as much as $20,000. He designs the rooms by hand, milling moldings and using miniature tools, like a table saw the size of a shoe box, for carpentry work.

The advent of 3-D printers has opened the door for people without such advanced woodworking skills, too — to the disappointment of traditional dollhouse makers, who view such technology as taboo. Ms. Coffee of Walla Walla, for example, uses a 3-D printer to make smaller objects, like decorative pumpkins, which she sells for $5. She makes other items, such as throw pillows, using everyday materials and tools like glue, fabric, tweezers and quilt batting.

A year into her craft, Ms. Coffee now sells enough printable herringbone floors and cowhide rugs on her website to turn a profit, although still not enough to give up her day job as a graphic designer. She also uses the dollhouses to work out design challenges in the real-life houses that she and her husband renovate and flip. If she’s not sure about a floor color or a pattern for a rug, she can try it out on a tiny scale for a few dollars. Her actual home has the same rustic wide-plank flooring as her dollhouses.

While miniatures have long had their enthusiasts, this new generation of dollhouse makers is turning to idealized contemporary homes at a time when the real-life version is increasingly out of reach for many Americans. High real estate prices and stagnating wages make it difficult for many homeowners to consider a $100,000 kitchen with a farmhouse sink and a Wolf stove. But you could have a very little one — or three of them, and fill them with teensy espresso makers, cheese boards and bottles of Dom Pérignon. Like the idea of a barn door, but don’t actually have a place to install one? Tuck it into the dollhouse attic, and if it grows tiresome, refurnish the entire room with rattan chairs, a shag rug and a soft pink palette.

Kwandaa Roberts, an OB-GYN in Philadelphia, says she has found a following on her Instagram account, Tiny House Calls, among millennial women who pine for a prettier house. “They don’t have any money and a lot of them can’t afford to buy houses and they’re living at home with their parents or in a tiny apartment with roommates and they can’t do design and all the things that they want to do,” she said. “But like me, they can get a lot of their creative energy out on a dollhouse.”

Dr. Roberts, 47, a single mother of two, started her hobby two years ago when she bought a dollhouse at Target. She intended to give it to her daughter, now 5, but instead found that it filled a creative longing she had to be an interior designer. She painted it, added wallpaper, and details like a brass soaking tub and a kitchen with a waterfall countertop. She made furniture by hand with supplies she bought at Michaels. “I’ve always loved interior design, had a huge passion for it, and may have gone into it as a career had I known that was a thing,” she said. But when she was growing up, “there was no HGTV. Home Depot sold lumber; it was not what it is today.”

In her tiny houses, Dr. Roberts has found an outlet, and an opportunity to reveal her projects on videos and photos she shares with her 47,000 followers. “I don’t have to redo my house,” she said. Instead, “I can have 10,000 kitchens and they will be fantastic.”

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