Modern Miniature Pioneers

For me, one of the most rewarding things about being featured in the recent New York Times article about modern miniature design are the stories and experiences people have shared in person and over email. Those new to the hobby are intrigued, and a bit fascinated in the desire to collect small and wonder how I got started and how I keep it going. Some reminisce about their own doll house days and flirt with the idea of renovating a long-forgotten house or indulging in a new purchase or two.

Others, like Myrna Gopnik and her family, are inspired to share how ingenuity, patience, and imagination can produce a modern doll house wonder ahead of its time. Myrna, a retired linguistics professor, emailed me after seeing the Times article in her Toronto newspaper and thought I would be interested to see what she and her family built from scratch...forty years ago.

What started as a dining room box for her daughter Melissa eventually grew into a veritable townhouse of rooms filled with handcrafted pieces of furniture, instruments, artwork, appliances, and hand-wired lighting. For Myrna, her husband Irwin, and their six children, this became a family endeavor that involved hours of creating intricate modern pieces. Myrna even had some furniture fabricated in a modern style, to the puzzlement of a local vendor.

In Myrna's words:

I read about you in the Globe and Mail in Toronto and thought you might like to see some pictures of a dollhouse that was made about forty years ago. It started as a single dining room for my youngest daughter, Melissa. Then it just grew, with many of my children helping. We inlaid all of the floors with veneer, hooked all of the rugs and made every single piece of furniture ourselves. I bent copper wire for all of the Bauhaus pieces and then took them to a chrome plating business in Montreal (where we lived for thirty years, my husband and myself were professors at McGill University). The man laughed when he saw the pieces and said he had never seen anything like it and chrome plated everything for $5.00. Each room has its own lighting and you may see that there are buttons on the stove to turn on the light in the oven and to turn on red lights under the burners. The harpsichord, which I made with my dear son Blake has all of the necessary wires and each key moves independently-not just painted on. It was great fun to make and many children and grandchildren have enjoyed it. And, of course, as the children pointed out they needed a market so we made one. We were able to buy some of the fruit, but we had to make all of the meat and bacon and hams ourselves. Hope you enjoy seeing it as we did making it.

I love the fun, handmade vitality of the pieces and rooms. The Rietveld-inspired chairs and bed in the child's room and of course the modernist Corbusier and Wassily loungers in the living and dining areas. I am floored by their ability to electrify the house and create artwork. I inquired who had the house now, and Myrna responded:

The dollhouse is at our place now because all of the kids and grandkids are grown up. I had to do some rewiring and fixing up but it is in good shape now. What is fun is that we have most of the pieces in life size, i.e. the Corbu lounge and setee, the Wassily chairs and the dining chairs (though the big ones are canned and the little ones are suede) and we too have stainless steel appliances. If I had made it all at once it would have a more Miesian kind of structure, but since it grew one room at a time the overall structure is more conventional.

I was completely enamored of this story and became more and more intrigued with this family. My interest was further piqued when I saw her last name: Gopnik. My first thought was New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, whose work I greatly admire. So, I asked.

So glad you like Adam's work. He is my elder son and has been writing since he was a little boy. Here is a picture most of the family (my oldest daughter, Alison was off with her boyfriend) in 1973 when Irwin and I were on sabbatical leave and we took all of the children out of school for the year and just traveled around Europe to fifteen countries. We had an apartment in Paris for five months and that was Adam's first taste of Paris which then led to Paris to the Moon.

And there they are at the Parthenon! What a great opportunity to travel abroad and expose your kids to a whole new world. Is it any surprise that they created their own modern mini masterpiece decades ago?! I am grateful to Myrna for sharing this piece of her family history, and for granting permission to share it with you.