Photo by Ash Parsons

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This Miniature Life

I can build furniture. I can wallpaper walls. I can fill an entire bar shelf with jars of sake I made myself. I can roof a building, make a taiko drum, make a teapot out of beads and wire. I can make hatboxes, wrapped in gold ribbon, and endless sachets of tea. I can fold the tiniest boxes, the best boxes, the best tiny boxes, I can build a wall of tiny boxes.

I can break everything, fail repeatedly, cuss extravagantly.

And in the end no one cares but me.

As crows are drawn to shiny things, so I am drawn to miniature things. I don’t know when it started, but I was definitely a child, and a store called The Elf Shelf was involved (this was many years before “The Elf on the Shelf” became ubiquitous, I’m sorry, parents, if your eyelid started twitching just now). The Elf Shelf was more than a toy store. It was a hobbyist store, full of Madame Alexander dolls, Lionel trains, and endless miniature collectible, precious things. There were stuffed animals with real eyelashes and ornate Victorian dollhouses. There was a miniature candy shop displayed under glass, tiny and perfect, lollipops formed out of Fimo.

I didn’t know what Fimo was, but there it sat on the shelf, ready to be bought, formed into tiny foods, blocks wrapped in wax paper, multicolor logs stacked high.

It all seemed spectacularly adult, and yet it was a toy store. I could rarely afford anything in there as a kid (the store in the mall where I bought Breyer horses was more in line with my piggybank). The Elf Shelf was like a museum, to me, full of extravagantly costly, magical things. The kind of toys you can’t play with, because they will break if you do. The idea of a toy project just to build, like a model plane or a ship in a bottle, was completely strange to me. Yet I begged to stop at the store every time we passed it, just to look at the tiny foods, the tiny furniture, the tiny dishes.

At home, my dollhouse was an empty bookcase. It was furnished with a hodgepodge of Barbie things and miniature things. Nothing was on the same scale, and I played with it until things broke, including, eventually, the desire to play with dolls.

I still loved miniatures, but I loved lots of other things now, more things, like writing stories, pop music, books about dragons, movies about zombies, vampires, and oddball kids in detention (those are three different movies, that’s not one movie. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, I think it should be one movie).

Now we fast forward to adulthood, through having my own family, and finally arriving at last year. The awfulness of seeing a perfect storm brewing, knowing your leaders will fail your country, knowing it will “be bad,” catastrophizing, not knowing if you’re catastrophizing, scrolling the news, endlessly, a brutal parade of warning chirps—our colony of meerkats darted into our burrows.

And then it was wait, it was quiet, it was work from home and school from home. We were incredibly fortunate, recognized that, and also, felt the inevitable loss of so many ephemeral things that became more concrete as the days passed.

Then I saw a social media ad. The algorithm either already had my number, or it was just luck, because the first image was of a tiny dollhouse. The chattering anxiety in my brain quieted. I clicked the link. I zoomed in on the tiny beds, the tiny breakfast nook, the tiny doors, working lights, potted plants. A perfect, tiny house. Beautifully decorated, completely tidy except for one rain boot that had fallen over by the door—a dash of verité.

Most importantly, there was no one in the house, except for a cat, asleep on a chair. There was no doll family at the table, no doll daughter looking at books on her bed, no doll father fixing a table leg.

There wasn’t a single family member at home.

They were all out doing something else.

They were all out exploring, or on vacation, or visiting friends. Maybe they were on the big trip they’d been saving for, which hadn’t been canceled indefinitely. In the imaginary miniature family’s world, no borders were closed, no hospitals were overwhelmed. No funerals were being conducted over Zoom.

Looking at the perfect, empty-of-inhabitants dollhouse, I felt an entire section of my brain go absolutely, beautifully smooth. Perhaps it was like ASMR for my eyes. Looking at the miniature felt like taking a top-shelf tranquilizer, or wafting on a cloud. In a word: euphoric.

It turned out there were so many more kits like the one I first clicked on. I hadn’t known these kits even existed! Previously the idea of trying to build a scene, having to make sure everything was on the same scale (ew, math) would have knocked me from “that seems fun” to “that seems hellish.” But these kits came with everything you needed, ready to assemble. All to scale, all parts ready. (Just like those ship in bottle kits, or WWII model plane kits.) There were bakery shop kits, chocolate shop kits, Takoyaki counters, ramen stands, book stores, coffee shops. I’d never thought of doing the full dollhouse, honestly. It was too big, and after a while of gazing, it was still too close to home . . . but the others . . .

It took me entirely too long to give myself permission to order one. I’m not sure why, except it felt like “how am I going to take up a new hobby now?” joined with the “but it’s a toy” bullying voice in my head. But finally, I decided on one and ordered it. I picked a Chinese calligraphy studio kit. The studio was small, had no roof, and had simple (looking) props. I thought working on it would be like . . . might be like . . . taking a vacation. Spending time somewhere other than my house, and the we-are-so-fortunate! grind of working, meals, shopping, worrying, disinfecting, cleaning, schooling, laundering.

I did the first kit over a three-day weekend. Just sat there, absorbed, completely delighted to be gluing tiny pieces of furniture together, or folding tiny paper boxes. Listening to music or podcasts, or nothing at all (and not staring at a screen), building something ridiculous and charming. I made a lot of mistakes. I punched a hole in what was supposed to be a book, as I tried to get it to fit on the shelf. I cussed and squinted and hunched. I had a fantastic time. So, I ordered another kit, then in a predictable fit of THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER! I ordered three more kits. The second kit I started took me a few months (working on weekends) to finish. It was much smaller and quite a bit harder. In this kit, I went to Japan and built an Izakaya (a small, neighborhood bar). (I joked to friends that I was going to build a tiny EPCOT World Showcase of miniatures.) There’s a music box in the back of the bar, an added feature along with the working lights. I love looking at it. I’m very, very proud of the teapot you can barely see. It’s two beads and two pieces of wire. The sake jars are beads, a round piece of wood, foil, wire, and a paper label. The large round stools are pony beads wrapped in twine. Do me a favor and don’t look at the wine boxes too long. I was learning.

Then I started my current kit, “English Garden Teahouse,” which is completely diabolical. Surprisingly, this one stresses me out a bit, and not in the fun, recreational cussing way. I think it’s because this kit is positively choked with things, which <cough> might be a bit too close to my home environment, as it turns out. But still it’s almost done, I just have to actually build the greenhouse. Which could take a few more months of weekends, given that it’s summer, and the family is now half vaccinated (12 and up!) (waiting on those under 12s!), and we’re carefully doing things again.

I have an Auntie Mame-ish tendency to switch hobbies. I used to cross-stitch, do needle-point, work puzzles, and make jewelry. Turns out those hobbies help my current one, and I’ve raided my beading supplies on several occasions to build a prop (that teapot, for example). For now, I see myself finishing the kits I’ve ordered, and I’m eyeing another two online.

I really do like building something so small and charming, and I love looking at the finished project. It’s exciting to see all these tiny props I’ve built over months of weekends being put into perfect place as I near the finish line. If this sounds like eye-ASMR to you, I post pictures of my projects on Instagram (there’s a long highlight section devoted to it).

If you want to get into miniatures, just know you’ll need more tools than you think. Get a good set of long tweezers. I recommend also a magnifying light. Bottle caps and flat toothpicks are the MVPs of your toolbox (plus bottlecaps are fun to use for scale in photos). Finally, you will need many more types of glue than what you can imagine. Just like in life, it takes a lot of bonding to hold a perfect scene together.

I don’t know how long I’ll continue building miniature kits. If I can find all the countries in kit form, I truly might build that EPCOT World Showcase. However, now that I’m visiting with vaccinated friends in person again, I can see that much of last year’s “hobby time” was in fact “missing-my-friends time.” Yet the calming effects of working on a kit, and looking at the finished product, hasn’t changed for me. Plus, that diabolical greenhouse is almost done. So, I feel like this hobby will continue, in a slower, less-intense fashion, in my post-vaccinated life.

Speaking of post-vaccinated life changes, here’s something I just realized, and which I think is a hopeful sign: One of the kits I’m eyeing is of a living room.


*All photos taken by the author.