15 March 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouses

From the Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago
Photgraph by Joyce DiDonato©

My recent entry on the subject of the Barbie doll may give a false impression to those readers who don’t know me.* I am not immune to the charm of dolls, nor to the siren temptation of collecting completely useless objects.

Inspired by my affection for Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, at an early age I translated my playtime to handicrafts — art projects, if you will — by constructing figurines and miniature furniture to represent characters from the books and their home. In most regards, I was scrupulously faithful to Norton’s prescriptions: matchboxes were stacked atop one another and glued together to create a functional chest of drawers, for example, and postage stamps became framed prints, suitable for hanging.

Pod Clock greets a Human Bean.
Illustration by Beth & Joe Krush

I veered from the novel in one important detail. Whereas Norton’s Borrowers lived under the floorboards, I knew I’d catch hell from my parents if I tore up the house: my little people lived in an old suitcase. But just as the Borrowers in the novel aspire to bourgeois comforts and begin to acquire dollhouse furniture (pilfered for them by a Human Bean who is — and this is significant — a little boy), so I began to fashion items that resembled antique furniture. Some of these are damned impressive, and moreover they are all dead butch. This wasn’t playing with dolls! This was cabinetmaking on a 1/12 scale! Nothing sissified about it.

Mrs. Thorne’s interpretation of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.
From the Art Institute of Chicago

Unfortunately, I’m not able to show you pictures of what became an elaborate, fully furnished, multi-room dwelling populated by dozens of characters (including not only Borrowers but opera singers, the casts of Upstairs, Downstairs and Star Trek, historical personages, other fictional characters, and little people of my own, obviously warped imagination). I displayed the collection in a bookcase, because I never quite managed to construct a suitable house. I learned a number of useful skills, including sewing. (My stitching isn’t very pretty, but then any seam looks bigger and clumsier on a two-inch sleeve.) When my parents moved to another house, the collection was boxed up, and it remains stored away at their home in Texas.

The library of Colleen Moore’s Castle
Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

I share with you here a few pictures of other people’s miniatures: Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle (at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) and Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s period rooms (at the Art Institute of Chicago). If you can imagine a blend of the Moore and Thorne approaches to miniatures, you’ll have a clear picture of the style to which I aspired. My first trip to Chicago, in the spring of 1975, was therefore something of a hadj.

My other collection required less craft and more cunning, if you will, since I didn’t make the objects in question but pursued them relentlessly in shops throughout Europe and America, and on two trips to Japan. They’re little plastic figurines, mostly characters from cartoons and comic books, but also from Star Trek (again) and live-action movies (the Marx Brothers meet Darth Vader, the Cowardly Lion meets Marilyn Monroe). There are a few strictly observed rules to the collection: I have to like the book or show from which the character derives, and the figurine must be useless, inarticulated, stationary — that is, not a jointed action figure. The fad for such figurines was at its height in the early 1990s, and I built my collection compulsively, arriving at a tally of 2,016 characters. (And that’s characters, not figurines: although I have several Mickey Mouses, for example, he counts only once.)

It’s a small world after all.

The fad seems to have passed, just as I exhausted the characters in which I was interested. I could have branched out into manga characters — but what’s the point? Already my collection is so large that, when displayed, it creeps out visitors to my home; and in storage it occupies a great many boxes. And so my collection has held fairly steady, except when a new Pixar movie is released.**

Let it be freely admitted and clearly understood, then, that though I have cast stones at Barbie, I am not without sin.

*And there seem to be several of you. Who are you people? That’s not a rhetorical question — write and tell me, please.

**May I preemptively observe that it’s kind of you but futile to offer me a figurine for the collection, because it’s almost certain that any character you can find will be represented already.


Anonymous said...

*And there seem to be several of you. Who are you people? That’s not a rhetorical question — write and tell me, please.

We have the mutual friend Monica Regan- one time she showed me your blog and I put it on my list after seeing posts about three people I love: Mary Tyler Moore, Suzanne Pleshette and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It's a great blog!

William V. Madison said...

Manifestly, you are a man of discerning tastes, both in art and in friendships. I salute you.

Lynne said...

I went to Rice (Will Rice College), back when the Doughties were our college masters. I found your blog link on Andrea's art blog, checked it out, and have enjoyed it very much. I know nothing about France, but I was a US expat in various other countries so I can relate, and can appreciate your writing from that point of view.