Between a poorly-managed pandemic, the worst wildfire season on record, and a heated election cycle, 2020 was more chaotic than any year in recent memory. In the midst of this swirling vortex, some Americans took shelter in the peaceful world of miniatures.
TikTok users created half-pint haunted houses, complete with micro-clowns and to-scale blood stains. In viral videos, comparatively giant hands cooked up miniscule meals that were totally edible, if not exactly filling. And adults gifted each other Calico Critters, the flocked plastic animal families from Japan. In the digital world, gamers paraded their shrunken avatars across the idyllic islands of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and tried to fulfill the Maslov’s hierarchy of needs of their Sims.
Miniatures get a bad rap, in part because of the uncanny valley, a term typically used to describe the hair-raising feeling we get when robots are just a little too lifelike. Similarly, the miniature’s ability to reflect and, simultaneously, distort our reality can give us the creeps. That aversion has only been exacerbated by the repeat appearance of miniatures in horror movies, from the grief-stricken artistry on display in Hereditary to the floor made up of human teeth in Sharp Objects. While this is one real potential purpose for miniatures—as a way to express and explore trauma—artists, hobbyists, and historians know these tiny worlds can contain so much more.
For one, when they’re not giving us the heebie-jeebies, humans are actually hardwired to find small things cute. In 1943, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed what he called “baby schema”—an evolutionary adaptation that encourages us to care for helpless infants. Today, we feel the same attraction to other species, like cats and dogs, and, at least in my case, those 0.25-ounce jars of Vaseline.
At the same time, well-crafted miniatures can be excellent tools for comprehension, according to Simon Garfield’s book, In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World. Architects and engineers use models to showcase and critique their designs, long before they appear in public. For those on the viewing end, scaled objects can help us grasp what we struggle to understand in real life. In a single gaze, we can see the entirety of a skyscraper or the layout of a battlefield. This can translate into a sense of mindfulness: At 12:1 scale, we have the time, space, and energy to give each detail our sustained attention.
In museum-quality objects, the number and quality of those details can boggle the mind, says Laura Taylor, the curator of interpretation at the National Museum of Toys/Miniatures in Kansas City, Missouri. The artists she works with “don’t want to just glue a tiny piece of wood on another piece of wood and call it a drawer,” Taylor says. “It has to work.” For example, William Robertson, a veritable celebrity in the world of fine miniatures, does intensive research on each of his 17th and 18th century pieces, and even sources materials, like brick and wood, from the period.
For viewers, uncovering evidence of these intricacies is part of the appeal. “There’s a sense of wonder,” Taylor says. “For people who don’t spend a lot of time making things with their hands, that’s really exciting.” She adds that’s especially true this year—at least in her own experience. “I think I have found myself during the pandemic wanting to create something,” Taylor says, “wanting to do something with my own two hands as a record or having something to show for that time.” Among other projects, she’s created a miniature book, Oona’s Dollhouse Adventure, starring a felt mouse.
Even the most elaborate designs still give viewers the opportunity to let their own imaginations run wild. While the artform is as serious as any other, it’s proximity to childhood activities, like playing with dollhouses, encourages play. Taylor recalls a tour group that created an elaborate “almost soap opera” storyline around a miniature of a sumptuous Art Deco jewelry store, where a tiny clerk talks to two customers beneath a lit chandelier made of 15,800 beads.
Between the labor-intensive work and that superficial creep factor, making miniatures can be solitary or even ostracizing. But the internet has connected artists and enthusiasts more than ever before. Tiktok videos, Etsy shops, and Reddit threads celebrate the form and bring people together in the process. “There’s this joy in finding a community,” Taylor says.
But perhaps the most important thing these teeny-tiny worlds can offer is a sense of control. This year, “so many things have changed and so many things are uncertain, and yet you can build a little dollhouse and everything is going to be where you put it,” Taylor says. “If you put doors on it, you don’t even have to dust it.”