Heidi Trautmann

848 - A doll-house enthusiast recounts the tale of her 'Miniature World' in Northern Cyprus

By Heidi Trautmann

There are so many miniature worlds existing among us, we live with them. There is the world of animals and insects in the grass along the roads we travel, there are the worlds of above and under water, and becoming more spiritual, there are the worlds of arts, of fairy tales and music in which - at least many believe in it - fairies, elves and the small people are involved. I, for example, believe in all of them.

Thus, one day when we visited friends, the lady of the house took me to her study and said: “Come, I want to show you something.” Stopping in front of a door, she opened it for me and…you won’t believe it…. I found myself in a space full of wonders. I was carried away, I didn’t know what to say or where to look first, I uttered small cries of amazement, ohs and ahs and clapped my hands. There were five doll houses filling the room on all walls, all sorts of open front houses in different styles and of different eras and also representing different cultures around the world.

I stood on my toes to look into the upper apartments and went down on my knees to look into the ones on the basement. Typical English living rooms and Asian sitting rooms; bathrooms complete with all details you would find in a fully sized one, a bedroom of a lady complete with wig, underwear and chamber pot, with a book lying open on the bed cover; studies with sewing machine or writing desk ready to sit down and do some work, a loft with childhood memories, one kitchen fully equipped with a charming breakfast nook; even a painter’s studio was available to the invisible house people….because I am sure there must be some around.

Then on the other side a charming Asian tea house and various small restaurants, with a half filled glass one a small table with a pipe lying next to it as if the guest would return in a minute; a green grocer’s fruit and vegetable stands; pottery shops, tiles on display; a flower shop…. My God… I shook my head in wonder.

Looking up from where I was kneeling I saw the lady of the many houses grinning down at me from ear to ear, obviously very proud of  the world she has created.

Inviting me to sit down at her working desk full of small tools, she showed me the things she presently was working on, tiny brushes for the new art studio using the aluminium foil wrapped around the top of wine bottles. She had already finished one easel and some artists’ paintings and other material she wanted to equip the room with.

Since when was she doing this, I asked her.

“I had always wished to own a doll house, a very special one, which I could decorate and furnish myself, so one day my husband surprised me with one he had bought in ready-cut pieces and had put it together with all the small details, windows, shutters, roof tiles etc.; that first house set me off, started it all, and that is about 25 years ago”.

Rather late, isn’t it, usually you start playing with doll houses at a much younger age, I said.

“Ha, don’t be mistaken, doll house owners are an international society of enthusiasts of all ages, more the older generation than the young ones, because they have the time and patience to sit and work on miniatures, look, here a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver, perhaps 1-2 cm long.”

Amazing. Are there shops where you can buy all these miniature household things, I mean you cannot make them all yourself?

“Oh yes, there are, also fairs, you won’t believe the size of the fairs I have been to, there is nothing that is not thought of, you can spend thousands in a couple of hours. However, such fairs are also very inspiring, you get new ideas to make things yourself.”

I see, you get your senses sharpened and you discover things others don’t, you judge all the things you set your eyes on for one purpose only or let’s say - with the eyes of a doll house owner. Here, the small Turkish and Islamic tiles, for example, the woven bookmarks as carpets or wall hangings.

“We discovered a lot in far-east countries where donations are made in temples in the form of miniatures, for example, for a wish you want to have fulfilled, you leave its equivalent miniature in the temple with a prayer.”

Are there any like-minded people in Cyprus, I ask.

“I really don’t know, it would be a great pleasure for me to have someone who is just as passionate about it as I am; it would be fun to share and discuss things.”


I can imagine the fun to discuss a project of building, planning and decorating some Cypriot houses for example. If there is anybody in Cyprus hooked up on the same passion, contact me via my website address, I will pass it on to my friend and she will contact you.


When I came home after this very special encounter I looked for international groups of doll house enthusiasts on the internet and this is what I found. I think, it adds to what my friend here in Cyprus was saying.


Along, winding queue outside Kensington town hall in London is buzzing with ordinary Saturday morning chatter. Couples, groups of women, and young families are discussing whether to splash out on a new chaise longue, invest in an antique chandelier or buy a whole new house.

These domestic fantasies may be far beyond the reach of most high street shoppers, but here at the Kensington Dollshouse Festival - the leading event for miniature enthusiasts for the past 25 years - that dream home is just within reach. This year's Christmas fair has attracted around 2,000 visitors from across the UK and as far afield as Japan and Argentina. Newcomers and old hands alike, they are a mix of serious collectors and hobbyists who enjoy decorating and playing with their dolls' houses.

Julia Cushings, a 27-year-old primary teacher from Norfolk, started collecting miniatures a year ago, inspired by her mother's 15 doll's houses. "We were up at five to come here. It's a hobby you can stop and continue whenever you like, or just treat yourself to a small bowl of fruit. I have a lighthouse because it's a bit different and I love the sea."

Stepping into Kensington Hall, I get my first glimpse of a Lilliputian world where thatched houses sit side by side with ornate castles. Collectors have their pick of thousands of handmade confections: tiny books filled with even tinier writing; roast chickens; porcelain doilies so fragile they have to be picked up with tweezers; butterflies in display cases; a pair of pistols in a velvet-lined box.

Malcolm Hall specialises in fully functioning miniature clocks. An engraver by trade, he makes every part himself, from the miniscule decorative inlay to the precisely weighted pendulums in his grandfather clocks. Shoppers gasp as he patiently tells them: "Yes, the clocks do actually work." Malcolm says being shortsighted makes it easier to work on small-scale things.

A girl holds a miniature cakestand

Susan Hirst, of Susan Lee Miniatures, gave up her job as a police officer in the early 90s to sell handmade miniatures full-time. Her leather footwear and tiny wooden toys, displayed behind protective glass, are attracting an eager crowd.

"I used to collect doll's houses and then I started making things from kits and realised I could make most of them myself. It took some years to perfect but now I make a whole batch and reproduce them robotically because I've made thousands."

Hirst carves tiny wooden shapes and builds the leather shoes around them.


"It's not about how much detail there is but knowing what not to put in. Most of my shoes don't fit on to dolls' feet. They would fit on to tiny real feet but dolls' feet are not flexible so they would break."

Collectors from across the world buy her shoes for private collections or museum display.

But despite the excitement in this hall, the innocent and rather eccentric miniature world is in decline in the UK. Cheap imports and dwindling interest from America, where doll's house collecting remains a hugely profitable business, have resulted in the closure of dozens of specialist shops and forced many makers to throw in the towel.

According to Hirst, the overall standard of miniatures is much lower than it was during the 1990s, a high point of doll's house collecting.

"People seem to want quantity rather than quality. You used to get many quality artisans but a lot of stuff is now brought in from abroad."

One collector spoke of a mysterious man dressed in white who attends miniature shows with an entourage, extravagantly buying up hundreds of models.

Charlotte Stokoe has run the Kensington Christmas and summer fairs for the past five years, and admits some mass-produced products are flagrantly copied from handmade miniatures.

"The problem is that the factory quality is getting so much better. But although makers have to be wary, the serious collectors want originals rather than copies."


 A man adjusts some tiny casserole dishes and dainty plates of food

Charlotte has a strict admittance policy for sellers and the fair has managed to maintain its reputation as the home of the world's top miniaturists.


"People who are interested have to send samples or I have to have seen their work in the flesh. Most of my traders sell high-end products and are very well-known. Some orders have to be placed specially with the maker and it can take up to two years to make the final piece.

"We tend not to be as affected by the recession because it's a hobby. People may sacrifice holidays or cars but they will still spend money on their doll's houses."

Amanda Brown has been visiting the Kensington fair for nearly 20 years. She has taken out insurance on her collection of gothic-style doll's houses.

"I just love it," she says. "You can fill your dolls' house with something you can never afford in full size. You buy according to your own pocket and they do seem to hold their value."

Susan Bembridge, a retired teacher who runs a small business making miniature wallpaper and upholstery fabrics, says her buyers know exactly what they're looking for.

"They spend years getting things together and some will pay thousands of pounds for just one item. If people are going to the trouble of getting the rest of the house right, they want something that's appropriate for that particular time period."

Many of her designs are reproduced from the walls of stately homes.

"Historical accuracy is important but it does take us an awful lot of work; every piece of paper is individually cut up by hand. But our buyers are all absolutely passionate about their houses and willing to pay for the quality."

Across the busy hall, a high-pitched shopper can be heard paying for her latest purchase, a leather two-seater sofa. It could be a scene in any furniture shop across the country - except that this happy customer leaves clasping her purchase in a paper bag.

Five things you didn't know about doll's houses

• One of the most valuable privately owned doll's houses is a replica of Spencer House in London, and was created by specialists in Bath for an American collector. It is worth more than £200,000, including over £3,000 of carpets and £1,000 of lighting.

• Queen Mary's doll's house, currently displayed at Windsor Castle, was designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens. The toilets and sinks are fully functional, the miniature books are real, and the bottles in the wine cellar are filled with actual wine.

• A William and Mary house from the late 17th century sold for £17,250 at auction in 1999. But you can buy empty, unfurnished doll's houses from the 1800s for £200-£300.

• The earliest known examples of doll's houses were found in Egyptian tombs, created nearly 5,000 years ago. These wooden models of servants, furnishings, boats, livestock and pets, placed in the Pyramids, were probably made for religious purposes.

• The earliest modern doll's houses were made in 17th century Germany and were used as educational tools, teaching young girls how to run the house. The Nuremberg House at the V&A Museum of Childhood, one of fewer than a dozen of its kind and the only one outside Germany, dates back to 1673.
Nicky Woolf

Small tools for the invisible inhabitants of the doll houses
Small tools for the invisible inhabitants of the doll houses

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