Making a world in miniature

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Carol Sorgen

Paula Setters Driftmeyer is shown with one of the “room boxes” she creates and collects. She has plenty of company in her pursuit of making and showing the dollhouse-like rooms: A group called Maryland Miniature Enthusiasts holds monthly meetings and regular exhibits, and museums like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago include dollhouses in their collections.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Paula Setters Driftmeyer didn’t have a dollhouse when she was a little girl. Now 58, the Perry Hall resident is making up for lost time with her collection of “room boxes” — think dollhouse rooms but without the house surrounding them.

“I’m fascinated by their small size,” said Driftmeyer, the executive director of a nonprofit organization. “Anything you can imagine in real life, you can make in miniature.”

A room box is a three-dimensional display of miniature environments made to scale. While some represent typical rooms such as bedrooms, kitchens, and the like, room boxes can also display both exterior and interior views that are whimsical as well as realistic.

Some miniaturists, like Driftmeyer, focus primarily on room boxes, while others may prefer to work on larger projects, such as dollhouses or miniature villages.

Driftmeyer’s collection of rooms numbers about a dozen so far, with themes ranging from a Southwest room to a sleeping porch, garden shed, and abbey ruin. “Whatever strikes my fancy,” she said. Her “corner rooms” were recently featured in Miniature Collector magazine.

What draws Driftmeyer to the world of miniatures is the quality of the workmanship on such a tiny scale — whether it’s the minute caning on chairs to thumbnail-size paintings. “I imagine myself living in this setting,” she said, “where everything stays perfect and the dishes never get dirty!” 

A way for friends to bond

For good friends Susan Bank and Suzanne Levin-Lapides, their love of miniatures — in their case, dollhouses — is an extension of their professional interest in interior design.

The two worked together for years at a design firm, developing a friendship that saw them through raising their children as well as pursuing their careers.

Bank, who lives in Owings Mills, was inspired to start collecting seriously more than 30 years ago. Now 70, she has both dollhouses and room boxes that she displays in her finished basement (“they take up a lot of room!”). There she enjoys them herself, as well as shows them off to visiting friends and grandkids.

Levin-Lapides was drawn into collecting dollhouses by Bank. The two became avid collectors, attending dollhouse and miniature shows, and talking “endlessly” about designs for their structures.

Levin-Lapides built her first dollhouse herself, and then added a miniature garden, an “art studio” in a barn complete with loom and easels, and a small Nantucket cottage.

Though she has had to downsize (for real) in recent years, Levin-Lapides said that the hobby was a wonderful way to express a love of structure and interiors on a small scale, as well as sharing “a passion for the arts and love of collecting” with a good friend.

Miniatures are a big business 

Ruth and Ron Dubois are so enthralled by the world of miniatures that they started a business, Forever Friends, in their Olney home. It began as part-time work, but has been almost full time since they “retired” 12 years ago.

Ruth, 68, meets with customers to help them decorate their dollhouses, while Ron, 74, handles everything from building and repairing, to adding electricity, wallpaper, shingles and more.

“I’ve always been a doll person,” said Ruth, recalling the dollhouse her father built for her when she was a child.

Whereas most dollhouses were once Victorian in style, now they encompass virtually every decade and design aesthetic — from the World War II era, to mid-century modern, to ultra-contemporary.

“I can’t keep myself to one style,” said Ruth, adding that between her collection and the shop, more than 40 percent of their house, plus their garage, is devoted to all things tiny. “Being a miniature collector takes over your life,” she said.

Despite that, Ruth and Ron continue to travel extensively in pursuit of the latest dollhouses and accessories, attending shows in England, the Netherlands, Chicago and Philadelphia, to name a few. “We love the enthusiasm and excitement of finding new artisans,” said Ruth.

One such craftsman close to home is Columbia resident Mike Barbour, who began making miniature dolls in 2004. After taking a one-day doll-making class, Barbour said he realized he enjoyed expressing himself through creating “little people.”

“I’ve become passionate about creating character figures which are life-like in proportion, yet have elements of humor, caricature and emotion,” he said. “I want my creations to evoke an emotional response, whether it be a portrait doll for a family member, or a more fantastical figure from your favorite book or story.”

In addition to miniature people and animals, Barbour creates tiny accessories for them, such as telescopes and espresso machines.

Museum-quality miniatures

The history of dollhouses goes back about 400 years to European baby house display cases, which depicted idealized interiors. In the 18th century, smaller dollhouses with more realistic exteriors began to appear.

Early dollhouses were handmade, but following the Industrial Revolution and World War II, they were increasingly mass-produced, which also made them more affordable.

Dollhouses run the gamut — from simple boxes stacked together to be used by children for play, up to multimillion-dollar structures displayed in museums. In fact, one of the most popular exhibits at the Baltimore Museum of Art was the Cheney Miniature Gallery.

The gallery was made by acclaimed miniature maker Eugene Cupjack, who fashioned a series of 17th to 19th century English and American rooms, all scaled one inch to one foot (the accepted modern-day size for miniatures).

At the Phoenix Art Museum, the Thorne Rooms were conceived and in large part created by Narcissa Niblack Thorne, who collected miniature furniture and household accessories during her travels to England and the Far East shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

Beginning in 1930, Thorne created these interiors to hold her ever-growing collection of miniature objects. Many of the rooms are faithful replicas, down to the minutest details, of existing houses in the United States and Europe. Some of the rooms even contain period-style rugs that Thorne had woven specifically for each space.

Thorne and the craftsmen she worked with completed nearly 100 such rooms, which are currently in museum collections in Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Knoxville, as well as Phoenix.

Enthusiastic camaraderie

There is great camaraderie among miniatures enthusiasts, many of whom belong to groups such as the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts (https://miniatures.org) and Maryland Miniatures Unlimited (check out their Facebook page), which holds monthly meetings and biannual exhibits at the Baltimore County Historical Society.

Martha Hendrickson, 66, has been a member of Maryland Miniatures Unlimited for about 10 years. Hendrickson, who lives in Lutherville and teaches art at the Bykota Senior Center, first became interested in miniatures when her husband bought her a dollhouse kit.

It happened to resemble the engineer’s house at the Montebello Water Filtration Plant where Hendrickson’s family, the Armstrongs, lived for 25 years from 1912 to 1938. Hendrickson’s grandfather, James W. Armstrong, was in charge of the design and construction of the plant, and later became its supervisor.

Hendrickson started making the house from the kit, but then completely customized it — building from scratch the porches, chimneys and interior rooms in the same layout as the real house. “It was fun to figure out how to create details such as downspouts, cellar storm doors, and chimneys so they were realistic,” she said.

Through Maryland Miniatures Unlimited, Hendrickson has made many friends and enjoys the sharing of ideas, materials and resources. Club members work on joint projects — such as an exhibit of Baltimore rowhouses, complete with the iconic marble steps, which was displayed in 2013 at a Historical Society show.

“It’s a fun hobby,” said Hendrickson. “I love seeing things in miniature, figuring out how to make things look real, and replicating different periods in history.”

As Paula Setters Driftmeyer put it, “It’s a world I can lose myself in.”

For more information about Forever Friends, visit www.foreverfriendsminis.com. Mike Barbour can be contacted through www.mikebarbour.com.