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Eames Chairs, Open Floor Plans and Sub-Zero Refrigerators—For Your Dollhouse

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, October 3, 2016 – Michele Volonino bought a little fixer-upper this spring for a song, figuring she could improve the Victorian with a wee bit of gut renovation.She grabbed a saw and removed a load-bearing wall to open the kitchen to the dining room. She reinforced the room with wood beams, which she stained to match the dark-wood floors she installed. The result evoked the “shabby chic” style she favors, although it was tricky getting her fingers far enough into some rooms to achieve it.

“Most dollhouses are stuck in that Victorian age,” says Ms. Volonino, a yoga teacher in Gallatin, Tenn., of her renovation project to the secondhand structure she bought for $45. “The only way to get the house I want is to bash one.”Bashing is what dollhouse hobbyists call structural renovation, and it’s happening a lot these days as people tire of the traditional old-fashioned aesthetic of the diminutive dwellings. Their remodels usually follow contemporary trends such as open floor plans, eat-in kitchens, vaulted ceilings, spa-like bathrooms and living rooms big enough to hold a tiny sectional couch and media center.“For some people bashing is scary, and they get really nervous about tearing down a wall,” says Ms. Volonino. “I love it because I can create exactly what I want.”

Miniature homes with detailed furnishings date to tombs of Egyptian and Chinese rulers. In 16th-century Europe, the wealthy kept “baby houses” filled with miniatures. Mass production in the mid-19th century helped democratize the structures.While today’s children’s dollhouses, often plastic, reflect a range of architectural styles, generations of grown-up enthusiasts stayed loyal to traditional features such as turrets, Queen Anne chairs and frilly tea sets.Now, dollhouse lovers who prefer contemporary homes are buying rundown properties and brand-new buildings. Then they bash them. Jess Newell of Newcastle, Australia, recently renovated a used dollhouse by adding a marble breakfast bar, a lighted fish tank and a master bath with rainfall shower.To avoid disturbing her neighbors, the stay-at-home mother does most cutting and sawing during the day.“I’m creating a modern version of what I want my actual house to look like,” says Ms. Newell, who sells her remodels. Ms. Newell, as many dollhouse renovators, doesn’t let her children play with her masterpieces, using a gate to protect them from her one-year-old twin daughters.

Do-it-yourself renovations can create miniature mishaps such as sagging floors and additions gone awry. “People don’t know how to pull down old dollhouse wallpaper,” says Darren T. Scala, owner of D. Thomas Fine Miniatures, a store and gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. Sometimes it is better to paper over old wallpaper, he says, because improper stripping can look as lumpy as in a human home. Mr. Scala often helps clients strip walls, sand floors and upgrade to LED lighting. He is currently assessing an aging 3-foot-wide Cape Cod with structural issues including a warped roof and separating walls. “The floorboards are coming up and the wallpaper is disastrous,” says Mr. Scala, who must advise a family reluctant to part with it. “Part of me wants to trash it, but it has so much character.”

When Susie Vallon, owner of Whimsies Dollhouse Shop in Greenwich, Conn., removed a staircase to enlarge a second-floor bathroom, her client needed reassuring.“They said, ‘but how does the doll get to the third floor?’ ” she recalled. “I said ‘with their imagination.’ ”Ms. Vallon uses a little hammer with a handle that can be shortened to 3 inches to fit tight corners. She sometimes outsources blueprints for especially precise work. Clients often bring in half-done renovations.

Remodeling demands modern fixtures, so last year Ms. Vallon’s shop started carrying a $65 stainless-steel kitchen-appliance set and other furnishings. Customers “don’t want winged-back chairs anymore,” she says. “Now I finally offer patios with hot tubs, and they sell right away.”

Industrial designer Michael Yurkovic strolled a miniature trade show in Chicago two years ago and couldn’t find any of his beloved midcentury-modern designs or other trappings common in today’s luxury homes. “There was a complete void,” he says. “It was mind-boggling.” So he produced $650 Wolf stoves—4 inches wide—and $250 Eames Eiffel chairs in detailed miniature scale. Realizing most dolls’ homes aren’t suited to his new modern furnishings, he is developing a new line of houses so hobbyists don’t have to bash a home to get what they want.“There are these preconceptions that a dollhouse has to be Victorian,” he says, “and can’t reflect the forward thinking of today’s architecture.”

One maker of modern homes is Streets Ahead Dollshouse. Sales of its Malibu Beach House kits, an art deco four-story, are up 50% so far this year over last, says Oliver Appleby, the Plymouth, England, company’s director. He has been carrying more modern accessories such as white kitchen cabinets and laptops. He expects to have a functioning TV someday. “Even in a Victorian house, people want modern lighting,” he says. “A lot of this reflects the real world.”

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