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The outsized pleasures of the very small

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.”

It is difficult for me, in the presence of miniatures, not to feel like a pervert. Tiny things have always filled me with a devious and urgent covetousness. “Delight” is too casual a word to describe it, and not at all physical enough. The first and last thing I ever stole was a Sudafed-size doubloon from a friend’s pirate-themed Lego set. I needed it. More than twenty years have since passed, but preventing myself from buying Polly Pocket sets on eBay is a feat of near-constant diligence. Sometimes I slip up, though, see a tiny thing I simply must own, and breathlessly buy it. The lining of my purse was once destroyed by the tines of several miniature forks that I kept stashed away for almost a week; on my mantel sit lead soldiers and ceramic seals, a single reduced radish, and a U.S. passport smaller than a Chiclet. They gather dust and puzzle friends. I don’t see myself as a trinkets person, and yet when I heard of a woman at the fair who hid her extensive miniatures collection at her son’s house so that her husband would never learn of it, I thought to myself, “Good idea,” and made a mental note to maybe one day do the same.

HA043__2VP70-2It feels gluttonous — and good — to hoard so much sensual detail at once. Miniatures are the most concentrated form of extravagance I know, a decadent combination of ontological and visceral attraction. There is wickedness to it, a pleasant brand of self-disgust. The masochistic ecstasy of seeing myself as a monster when next to a miniature is unshakeable. A hand never appears more sun-ravaged than when cradling a ticking grandfather clock that is the height of a stick of chewing gum and carved from an especially fine-grained pearwood. Nothing compares more favorably to a hangnail than a christening gown for a doll’s doll, made of embroidery thread so thin it must be sewn with acupuncture needles.

The tacit philosophy of miniaturists — celebrate all entities, neglect no details — is at once ambitious and laughable. To mimic the known universe as it is, not with imagination but with rigor, allows for an uncommon kind of pleasure: one notices, with some sadness, how rare it is to be purely impressed. No fan or collector of miniatures would describe their enthusiasm as soothing (the heart in fact races), but there is something emotionally restorative about an enjoyment uncomplicated by interpretation.

Why should it be so fulfilling to see the detritus of everyday life made small? I don’t look twice at the recycling bin chained outside my apartment building, but diminish it — while re-creating the rusty patina and scuffs and peeling municipal labels — and I’ll admire it, entranced, for what can feel like hours. The sensation isn’t unrelated, I think, to the thrill one experiences when tasting a candy whose synthetic flavor matches exactly that of the fruit it imitates. It is the accuracy, the rightness, that is so rewarding. Miniatures disappoint only when they lack exactitude. If executed with even a hint of impressionism, the most ornate items — chess sets, spinning carousels, leopard-skin coats — will fail to elicit admiration. Better a flawless broom than a crudely carved cuckoo clock.

And exactitude is something we’re seldom given permission to relish. We’ve even been taught to distrust it. When we say a painter has “technical skills,” we mean that her work is not creative; when we say an actor is a “good mimic,” we mean that his performances lack soul. It is a relief, then, to be in the presence of precision — and be allowed to like it.

With the glaring exception of a sheikh from Qatar — he is rumored to come to Chicago each spring to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of miniatures — most of the fairs’ attendees were women, long since retired. They wore inexpensive clothing and carried faux-leather handbags; their cars, which filled the hotels’ parking lots to capacity, were mostly American in make and old in model. And here they were, spending their money on tiny objects modeled after full-size items they could never afford, selected to decorate houses that, if they were of habitable dimensions and well located, would sell for millions. “I bought a little bench for four thousand dollars last night, and I drive an eighteen-year-old RAV4,” one woman confessed to me. “Priorities!”

HA044__2VP70-1“I always wanted to inflict my view on society, and now I do it in miniature,” Keith Bougourd, a British architect living in France, said. I examined his display of trophy fish and Regency-era tea caddies. Like most of the miniaturists I met, Keith used jeweler’s tools and instruments designed for repairing watches and musical instruments. He pointed out a microscope carved from scrap piano-key ivory and mentioned a pair of commodes, recently sold, made of mammoth’s tooth. “You can own everything you can’t afford in full size,” he said, “and you escape into a world most people couldn’t otherwise occupy.” The sentiment struck me, like the miniatures themselves, as a perspective plausible only when examined up close. As long as I was in Bougourd’s company, surrounded by his tiny things, his explanation made sense — miniatures were an elegant solution to an unwieldy dilemma. But later, when I was by myself in the ordinary-size world, it seemed tragic.

Jason and Jacqueline Getzman, of Palatine, Illinois, had a rare eagerness to consider the metaphysical implications of the peculiar way in which they spent their time. The couple, who have been making miniature metalworks for more than forty years, are among the most prolific and respected manufacturers of working miniature Swarovski-crystal chandeliers in the world: she builds them, he wires them. The Getzmans used to go to dozens of fairs every year, all across the country. When I spoke to them, they had a lighthearted rapport, a collaborative way of answering questions. They both wondered aloud about the “psychology of it all.” As we chatted, they took turns flicking on tiny lights and demonstrating kitchen appliances. “It encompasses life,” Jacqueline said, gesturing toward the room. “How people live their lives — and how they wish they lived their lives.”

The best aesthetic experiences are those that permanently heighten our standards of beauty and private feelings of exaltation. They possess a painful brutality, forcing us to acknowledge how often in the past we accepted mediocrity. Things we once enjoyed fade; things we once paid no mind become intolerable.

I suspect that under other circumstances — say, a continental breakfast eaten quickly before a domestic flight — I might not have noticed the hotel’s wall-to-wall carpets. But over the course of the three days I spent walking atop them, their garish colors and enlarged paisleys enraged me. The sloppy swirls took on a significance they didn’t deserve. They began to announce themselves as the antithesis of why I was there. They tormented me.

Ugliness and squalor aren’t limited to floor coverings — we settle for it all the time. Stale sandwiches wrapped in cellophane. Typo-ridden blog posts. Polyester underwear that melts in the dryer. Elected officials who speak inarticulate falsehoods. Outside the magnanimous moods that occasionally befall all of us, it usually feels as though everyone is bad at their job and nobody tries. To spend time in the company of miniaturists is to be granted a reprieve from the world’s general shabbiness. Here is a group of people, objectively talented and daring to bother: allergic to “good enough,” dissatisfied with the generic, confident that time and attention will indeed yield something better than it reasonably needs to be.1 Their effortfulness elicits vicarious pride. It is easy to imagine the artisans’ held-breath focus and exhilarated satisfaction, and in bearing witness to the fruits of their labor, one cannot help but absorb some of the myopic gratification.2

Besides the odd minutes I spent fixated on the carpets, this was the overwhelming feeling I had that weekend — a chest-swelling sense of unearned self-respect. Miniatures have the power to improve the sensibility of those who encounter them — not just once, but seemingly more with each moment of sustained attention. They issue a kind of perceptual debt: as with frescoed churches and brocaded clothing, one wants to feel worthy of them.

I trembled those three days, and empathized, in a bodily way, with the child’s urge to put small things in her mouth. I wanted to consume. The impulse, like its object, seemed infantile. “A psychiatrist once told me children like elephants and dinosaurs but also small things because children live in a world built by and for adults, so they appreciate other things that are out of scale,” Suzie Moffett, a retiree from Indiana, told me. But there is something distinctly grown-up about being attracted to tiny things — an assertion of omnipotence and possession, a respect for accuracy, a desire to understand completely and all at once. A good miniature — dizzyingly precise, scrupulously proportionate — is an exercise of dispassion no child could endure or appreciate.

And real children are, unsurprisingly maybe, rare in the miniatures world: the objects are too fine, too expensive, too labor-intensive to entrust to anyone inclined toward anything so reckless as play. I saw few kids at the fairs, and the ones I did come across were closely supervised.

“I feel sorry sometimes. I see children come in with their mothers and grandmothers and of course they would like these things for their dollhouses,” said Lars Mikkelsen, a retired I.T. technician turned miniature-furniture maker. “But this is not the place to buy that.”

Just a few miles from the fairs, in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago, one can visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Commissioned during the Depression by a Midwestern socialite, the rooms are historically accurate dioramas of European and American interiors. In one, a spindly hunting dog sleeps in front of a medieval hearth. In another, half-full glasses of wassail are left abandoned on a banquet table. To their owner’s specifications, the rooms were constructed at the now-standard 1:12 scale, meaning that a foot-long item in real life is an inch when miniaturized. It’s the same scale used for Queen Mary’s dollhouse, which was built in the early 1920s and has working elevators, hot and cold water, flushing toilets, dovetail-jointed drawers in the maids’ quarters, and a cellar filled with real wine.

HA045__2VP70-2Almost every miniaturist I met used this scale. “It’s just the right size,” Greg Madl, the promoter of one of the shows, told me. “If you go smaller, you lose something.” A retired teacher named Arlene Finkelstein agreed. She dissects flowers to ascertain their shapes and then re-creates them in Japanese silk-crepe paper that she purchases by mail from a man in Atlanta. Her roses are more expensive than her tulips because they have more petals; to achieve a saturated-enough blue, her hydrangeas must be pigmented with ink; she outsources the spider mums, which are so delicate that their spikes must be cut with a laser. “The smaller the scale, the more imagination you have to use to interpret them,” she said. “If a flower is too small, it’s really just the suggestion of a flower.”

For the people who make and admire miniatures, suggestion is worthless. I met an archaeologist who made minute ferns because blight and bugs destroyed her real garden; I met a retiree who relished in her ability to put white rugs in a dollhouse bathroom, something she’d never get away with at home. The hobby is gratifying to the degree that it solves real problems, however small they might be to begin with.

The Getzmans — the couple who make chandeliers — had urged me to rewatch an episode of The Twilight Zone that stars Robert Duvall in one of his earliest roles. I downloaded the show at the airport the following day. Duvall plays Charley Parkes, a Bartleby-like virgin who lives with his mother. During his lunch break one day, he wanders into a museum near his office and glimpses a miniaturized nineteenth-century Boston town house. Its roof is gabled, the drapes are plush, and inside the tiny marbleized parlor sits a doll, posed on the bench of a fist-size grand piano. Charley peers in, and as his gaze settles, the doll begins to subtly sway, music tinkles out, and the figurine becomes a real, though teeny, woman. Charley is transfixed, and he returns to the dollhouse day after day. He loses his job, then his appetite. Eventually, he is institutionalized. After being released, he seems, for a time, restored, but soon enough he retreats back to the museum. We see him crouched in the shadows, craning his neck around the dissected, diminutive vestibules. “Dr. Wallman says it happened because I needed a simple world I could understand,” he whispers into the shrunken rooms, “but your world isn’t simple, is it? No world with people in it is.” And then he vanishes. The last shot shows him perched inside the house on a pencil-length settee, chatting lovingly with his new girlfriend, in whose world he finally fits.

The fantasy is irresistible: if only all life’s challenges were questions of scale, if only they could be made manageable through literal reduction. So many of the people I met seemed to believe such a thing was possible. I went to Chicago with the idea that miniatures could charm, seduce, supply short-term distraction for those who wanted it. I left with the notion that they were, for some at least, a form of pain management — brilliantly literal and apparently effective.

And perhaps there is value, more now than ever, in specificity. At a time of vague promises, blunt-force sloganeering, and unfounded factual claims, a person who spends two weeks making a fastidiously measured and proportionately diminished salt shaker can seem, to me at least, like a sage.

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine appeared in the August 2015 issue.

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