Kate Finney heads to the V&A Museum’s latest exhibition to discover the stories behind some of the UK’s favourite dolls’ houses…
There is a magical charm to anything made in miniature, and dolls’ houses encapsulate this sentiment beautifully. Not only do they conjure up memories of happy hours spent day-dreaming of a grown-up house of your own, they also allow the imagination to run wild.
The Small Stories exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood has selected 12 dolls’ houses to illustrate what these examples can tell us about the era they come from and their inhabitants and owners.
In the 18th century, dolls’ houses were known as ‘baby houses’ and were custom-made pieces of cabinetry, decorated in exquisite style. Far from being toys, they were for adults, intended as a display cabinet for miniature objects from around the world, like Chinese porcelain.
“In the Victorian era, factories were able to manufacture tin and wooden furniture for dolls’ houses, and as a result they became an essential toy for any self-respecting middle-class nursery,” explains Alice Sage, curator of the exhibition. It was also around this time that they started to be linked to a girl’s education, teaching essential lessons like how to make curtains, clean clothes and care for linen.
Ever since they’ve been created, dolls’ houses have always been a vehicle for expressing our personalities. “There’s always been a sense of aspiration,” says Alice. “It’s about being able to have the house of your dreams that you can’t have in real life.”
One of my favourite dolls’ houses is Whiteladies, a modernist villa from the 1930s. Yet it was made by a painter who lived in a Georgian cottage in Hampstead. She was inspired by the new modernist style of architecture that was springing up in London, so she made the house she would have loved to live in, complete with Bauhaus furniture, lots of chrome and leopard print, and even glass walls.
The only house in the exhibition that isn’t English is the fabulous Kaleidoscope House, which was made in 2001 by conceptual artist and photographer Laurie Simmons and architect Peter Wheelwright, and produced in limited numbers.
“Despite the brightly coloured walls that slide around so you are able to change the colours of
the house, this is a very serious dolls’ house,” remarks Alice. “There is hardly any furniture and definitely no knick-knacks!”
The creators intended to make a dolls’ house fit for the 21st century, and commissioned leading artists like Cindy Sherman to make a set of miniature artworks and sculptures to go inside the house. Harking back to the Victorian era of using dolls’ houses as an educational tool, the idea was that children could curate the Kaleidoscope House like a mini art gallery.
With everything from country mansions to suburban villas, newly-build council estates and high-rise apartments, the show also has a contemporary element with a new art installation called Dream Houses featuring wooden boxes customised by 20 contemporary designers who were asked to create their dream rooms.
Whether aspirational, fantastical, whimsical, technological or practical, the results are fascinating windows into the imaginations of the designers. No one volunteering to design a kitchen, which perhaps reflects an ideal scenario of endless take aways and eating out!
It’s rare to find an exhibition that caters to children and adults alike, and there truly is something for everyone here. In a wonderful addition to the main show, two rooms have been super-sized – the 1840s kitchen and a 1960s high-rise living room – so that children can go in, dress up and interact with the concept of dolls’ houses in a completely different way.
And experimentation and fantasy worlds are what dolls’ houses have always been about. “I think it’s the way that you can project yourself into a completely different life, they’re like tableaus, you can’t help but spark your imagination,” says Alice. “Being able to play with dolls’ houses, rearrange furniture and artworks within them, and make our own additions, is such a creative act – we can create our own worlds.”