Miscellany — From the February 2017 issue

Little Things

The outsized pleasures of the very small

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Lori DeBacker drives a Mini Cooper, owns a runt dog, and lives with her husband, a model-train enthusiast, in a twelve-room Victorian house whose tearoom is outfitted with three-quarter-scale furniture. “A woman can sit in it, but a man would never dare,” she told me. “I just like everything tiny. I’ve just liked tiny all my life.” In the second grade, bothered by the unrealistic food offered for Barbies, DeBacker decided to make her own out of clay. Her parents’ country-club friends were impressed and began commissioning meals for their own daughters’ dolls. Today DeBacker, who wears +300 reading glasses and a ring on every finger, enjoys creating minuscule cakes — “faux gâteaux” — and humorously altered, miniaturized versions of famous paintings. “I love to spoof the masters,” she smirked, showing me a postage-stamp-size reproduction of The Scream in which the central figure was replaced with an extra-agonized ghost. Making miniatures focuses DeBacker. “My mother always said this would drive her to drink,” she said, “but I think it keeps me from it.”

Photographs of miniatures by Lori DeBacker by Thomas Allen

Photographs of miniatures by Lori DeBacker by Thomas Allen

I met DeBacker in April at an airport-adjacent Marriott. She had traveled to suburban Chicago for three overlapping miniaturist conventions. The fairs had attracted hundreds of vendors and makers and thousands of lifelong enthusiasts and collectors, who assembled for a weekend to admire all things miniature.

It seemed, in the three days I spent in Chicago, as though I encountered every material object I had ever known. There was prosciutto, each translucent slice smaller than a dime; a pill-size bottle of bleach. I saw tiny eggs in tiny eggcups and tiny CliffsNotes on Don Quixote. There were pinkie-size arcade games and rubber-band-size diamond necklaces set with poppy-seed-size stones. There were L.L. Bean boots and Etruscan ruins, rolling luggage so small a dog could swallow it without incident. In one hand I could easily hold a gumball machine, a hamster in a chip-lined cage, a Shaker chair, a jar of preserved pears, a tiger-skin rug with the head still on, and a Giacometti-style bronze.

The items were sometimes far more expensive than their full-scale inspirations. A roll of receipt paper was $25, a birdbath $300. I saw a bergère sofa for $1,250 and a stocked pantry for $1,525. I heard about, but did not see for myself, a piano supposedly going for $9,000. Other items, such as a pea-size glass elk blown in Brazil ($64), lacked, as a real-estate agent might say, relevant comps. DeBacker once made a replica of Rutherford B. Hayes’s house that fit in her palm. When I asked her why, she looked at me like I was crazy. “To see if it could be done,” she said.

Like the dozens of others that surrounded it, the surface of DeBacker’s table was congested with what from a distance looked like clutter but became on closer scrutiny a miscellaneous three-dimensional tapestry of intention. Dogs and hedgehogs crowded potted ferns and crystal balls; pies rested beside spiderwebs suspended between artificial branches. Each item was ludicrously small, but there were so many that almost none of the tabletop was visible. The room itself was similarly filled to capacity. The conspicuous abundance of delicate, easily losable objects forced everyone into a state of collective submission. One lady would smile at another and gingerly move aside. “No, you go,” she’d say, and receive an immediate nod of gratitude.

HA042__2VP70-1I stood at DeBacker’s booth for a good hour, squinting at jack-o’-lanterns, holding Cheerio-size doughnuts up to the fluorescent light. A woman approached and began talking about her “fairy gardens” — little landscapes built outdoors, with bitsy fountains and elfin furniture. Inclement weather had ravaged the gardens in recent years, she said, and so this last winter her husband had constructed for her a more durable topography out of cement. DeBacker listened attentively. The two women spoke of mosses and broken pine needles, compared notes on which petite species were the hardiest. I asked if either of them ever incorporated bonsai trees into her designs. They turned to me simultaneously and raised their eyebrows in dismay. “Way too big,” DeBacker said. “Way, way too big.”

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