In times of stress, I often imagine parallel lives I could be leading. When I’m particularly overwhelmed, I picture myself retiring to a cabin in the woods of some mountainous region where no one could bother me and I would spend less time on the internet. A much more specific fantasy is one in which I am an eccentric millionaire with lots of space, time, and money on my hands. Without anything else to worry about, I would throw my resources and energy at getting very good at a very useless task: making intricate dollhouses.
I have always been into miniatures, because I’m a creative gal with a desperate need to control entire worlds. As a crafty child in the 90s, I was gifted lots of those Klutz kits. Remember those? They came with books and supplies to make all kinds of small things, like fairies made from synthetic flowers. And of course, there was the American Girl empire: their famous dolls, of course, but also the crafting projects in American Girl Magazine, and the books and craft kits for sale in the American Girl catalogue. (I owned both Micro Minis, a kit for constructing very small miniatures with dowels, beads, and foam slabs, and Tiny Treasures, an excellent book on making complex miniatures out of household objects and basic craft supplies. LOOK AT THIS PIE MADE IN A BOTTLE CAP, FOR INSTANCE!)
source: Kristyn Kalnes
Things got serious when the American Girl catalogue launched its line of “AG Minis,” absurdly expensive small rooms that I wanted more than anything. My wish was granted when they discontinued the line and everything went on sale. Panicking that I’d lose my chance to own these tiny beautiful things, I begged my mom to order some of the furniture kits — not the shadowboxes with real working electric lights, though I wanted those too, but just enough furniture to capture the scene.
I was in fifth grade and beginning to form my idea of what adulthood was like: living in hip apartments near or in New York City, hanging cool art on the walls, listening to John Mayer’s album Room for Squares and probably relating to his song “City Love,” because you’re in love in or near the city. (All of these assumptions were based on visits to see my older cousins in New Jersey, with any gaps filled in with images from TV shows.) It was this vision of independence that led me away from the brightly colored bedrooms and the stable for horse girls. I circled the “Loft Apartment” and the “Rooftop Patio” sets in my catalogue. (Plus the “Tiki Party Pack,” because I lived in Florida and knew that throwing tropical parties was a vital part of having a social life.)
Target sold some inexpensive knockoff sets so I could add a bedroom to my little space, and soon I had a city loft of my very own on a shelf in my room. The decor pieces, at least the American Girl ones, looked so real. Assembling them, I could imagine being the kind of person who lived in a chic apartment with a big TV and a rooftop patio. I’d have friends over for dinner parties and they would compliment my exquisite design sense.
I am now an adult who lives in New York City (!!!) in an apartment that is very lovely, if not quite as hip as the AG Mini loft. My childhood crafting has turned to an adult interest in interior design, as I take great pride in arranging a space well. I follow a lot of home decor accounts for both inspiration (the ones with tips on designing a small space on a budget) and wish fulfillment (the beautiful ones that I could never afford). And yet I still think about miniatures, a lot, picturing the beautiful dollhouses I would create in my alternate life as a rich woman of leisure. These days, I find myself wanting to craft my past, not my future.
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I had a transient childhood, though not in the way that people usually mean that. My family wasn’t military, and our many moves were mostly contained to the same state. I’d been to six schools by sixth grade (including, weirdly, one twice — I went to the same school for third and fifth grades but a different one for fourth in between). People ask why I moved so much, and the short answer is that when I was born, my parents had no money, and my dad kept taking better jobs until we had money.
In the first house I can remember, we had a big open space for a living room because my family couldn’t afford living room furniture. Grandpa gifted us a Little Tikes Activity Gym one Christmas, but we lived in Florida and the plastic would burn our skin if we tried to play on it in the backyard, so it came into the living room. I recommend this setup, for what it’s worth. A large plastic play cube in the living room is a great place to re-enact Mufasa’s death scene from The Lion King, which my brothers and I did very often, one of us perched on top as Scar and one clinging to the ladder as his betrayed brother about to be hurled onto the carpet below.
The penultimate house was the best house. We’d recently set a new record for staying in one place — three years in Fort Myers, Florida — but my dad was transferred for work again, this time to North Carolina. I was sad to leave my friends, but I loved North Carolina immediately. The neighborhoods looked like real neighborhoods from TV shows. There were real trees everywhere, trees without palm fronds and Spanish moss hanging down. And we found a house that was big and beautiful and I thought we’d live there forever. We hosted Thanksgiving there with our whole extended family, cast parties after school plays, graduation parties when I was getting ready to go off to college. We set a new record for being in one place and I was silly and let my guard down and assumed that it would be permanent. It wasn’t. But if I could make a dollhouse version of it, I could keep it forever.
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I’ve lived in nine houses and seven apartments in my life, plus two dorm rooms. I want a way for those spaces to exist outside of my memory but away from their current inhabitants. I want to remember the decor that my mom picked out, in the cases when we stayed long enough to decorate. Really I just want that one house, the one that Mom and my youngest brother moved out of when my parents split up.
Two houses in my life have actually been permanent, though I haven’t lived in either. I would make those too, because they mean so much to me. First I would make my grandparents’ house, the site of some of my earliest memories. My mom went back to school after I was born and my grandparents would babysit me there, and I remember staying with them both times my parents went to the hospital and came back with a new brother for me. Then I would make Uncle John’s house, the beautiful home in New Jersey that I’ve visited so many times. I would make sure the sunroom was filled with plants like it was when Aunt Bonnie was alive. It’s not like that anymore, but in my version it would be.
In reality, I will probably never have the time, money, space and focus to make these tiny versions of my old homes, so instead I follow dollhouse makers on Instagram. The more intricate their designs, the better, because then I can imagine making equally realistic versions of the kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms that I used to spend so much time in.
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I don’t know if I’ll ever have a home that is permanent. I don’t know if I say that out of pragmatism — I am a millennial and have the distrust in home ownership typical of my generation — or as a defense mechanism to protect my heart from getting attached to another house that will one day belong to someone else. I have personal and professional goals that I haven’t achieved yet, and right now I think I’m in the city to make at least some of them happen. That’s all I can focus on and plan for right now. But when it gets too chaotic, I think of my backup plan, and imagine ways I could move to a huge cabin in the mountains somewhere, with a whole floor dedicated to my many, many dollhouses, keeping all my memories contained to one space for the first time in my life.