- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Lori Koutsouftikis of Vienna loves miniatures. She loves them so much that she had to get a part-time job to support her hobby. Of course, she chose to work at Once Upon a Time in Vienna, a shop that features a complete miniature and dollhouse section.
When she's not busy helping customers make their purchases, she's improving one of her own dollhouses.
She has four finished creations, a Victorian mansion, a beach house, an English teahouse and a wizard cottage. She also has two projects waiting in the wings, both of which are cabins. Altogether, she has spent at least $4,500 on the craft.
"It's a lot easier to redecorate a miniature house than a real house," Mrs. Koutsouftikis says. "It's definitely a therapeutic escape. A lot of people use it as a fantasy or fun time. It's like designing a stage or a story."
Although most people associate dollhouses with children, many adults use the structures to create fictional worlds and exhibit them as display pieces in their homes.
Sometimes, a dollhouse becomes the home that people wish they could afford, says Jenny Nash, owner of the House That Jack Built in Holland, Mich. The company's line of products features 50 designs, including farmhouses, country houses, Colonial houses and Cape Cod houses. The wooden houses are built at a scale of one inch for every foot the structure would take up in reality.
"You design a dollhouse exactly like you design a real house, but on a small scale," Mrs. Nash says. "You decorate them the same way, too. It's a large hobby for women. It's generational. They are passed down from one person to another."
Mrs. Nash and her husband, Jack, began their company in 1977 when Mr. Nash became seriously ill with toxic megacolon, a life-threatening complication of various intestinal conditions.
Mr. Nash had worked formerly as a home builder. While he was recovering from being sick, he repaired a dollhouse for someone as a favor.
Since that time, the company has grown. It employs four women to handcraft more than 2,000 dollhouses each year, which are shipped all over the world. The creations cost $100 to $10,000. The Lady Ashley, a Victorian mansion, is the company's most popular design. It costs about $300.
Gail Hering of West Olive, Mich., recently spent about $10,000 on a Katherine Anne dollhouse, including accessories, from the House That Jack Built.
Her miniature home is a two-story Victorian mansion with nine rooms, including a conservatory, a kitchen, a dining room, a parlor, a master bedroom, a bathroom, a children's bedroom, a game room and an attic. It has wallpapered walls, hardwood floors and chandeliers.
In the future, Ms. Hering anticipates adding a basement with a garage, a workshop, a pantry, a coal room and a laundry area.
"When I was a little kid, my parents borrowed a dollhouse from friends," Ms. Hering says. "I loved playing with the dollhouse. Since it belonged to someone else, I couldn't decorate it. I knew there were wonderful things I wanted to do with it, which I do now with mine."
Exercising control over the environment is one of the most satisfying parts of collecting smaller-than-life objects, says Susan Sirkis, a designer of miniatures in Williamsburg.
During troubled times, she says, people like to enter a world that they can adapt to meet their needs. Mrs. Sirkis specializes in making clothes for dolls, including miniature ones.
Although most individuals with dollhouses have active imaginations, Mrs. Sirkis says typically two types of people are interested in the hobby: collectors and crafters. Collectors buy the accessories they put in their miniature homes, while crafters insist on making them.
"You can actually have pretty much fun making miniatures out of things from the house or the garden," she says. "You might use a toothpaste tube cap for a wastepaper basket. As your skills become more advanced, you could do woodworking, like a carpenter."
Jim Abrams, president of Real Good Toys in Barre, Vt., sells completely assembled dollhouses and kits for those customers who want to assemble them on their own.
He offers unfinished kits in more than 100 designs, which cost from about $59 to $995. He also markets QuickBuild kits, which have homes that need minimal assembly. Six designs, which cost from about $109 to $459, are available.
While the majority of the wooden dollhouses that Real Good Toys manufactures are on the 1-inch-to-1-foot scale, the company also produces homes on a play scale, in which the floors and ceilings are taller than realistic measurements would allow.
Play-scale homes are designed for children who want to use their Barbie Dolls or bears inside a dollhouse. Four unfinished play-scale kits and one play-scale QuickBuild kit are on the market.
"Children play out their own home fantasies," Mr. Abrams says. "They role-play in them."
Constructing a dollhouse with a kit is a way to create a bond between children and parents, says George Landry, owner of G.E.L. Products in Vernon, Conn. Although Mr. Landry appreciates finished dollhouses, he says he believes customers have fun putting them together from scratch.
Wooden dollhouse kits from G.E.L. Products cost about $85 to $540. The prepared package provides nails and the proper parts for assembly.
"People are letting the computer baby-sit their kids," Mr. Landry says. "My father made models with me. We used to do things together. Now there are few families that are doing that."
Grandparents also can purchase a dollhouse and work on improving it every time their grandchildren come to visit, says Laura Robbins, owner of Celerity Miniature Homes in Birmingham, Ala. Her company makes wooden dollhouse kits that cost $30 to $700.
"It fosters imaginations for children," Mrs. Robbins says. "With so many toys, there are so many bells and whistles that they really can't use their imaginations."
Placing shoes under a bed or eyeglasses on a table brings miniature homes to life, says Braxton Payne, owner of Braxton Payne Miniatures in Conyers, Ga. He says details are what catch the eye of onlookers. The more accurate and complete the dollhouse, the better the story it tells.
Mr. Payne, who is a member of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts in Carmel, Ind. (www.miniatures.org), specializes in gardening accessories for dollhouses, such as clay pots.
"The first thing people see is the half-eaten apple on the table or a dirty pair of socks," he says. "If you put a dish of food on the floor in the kitchen, you are saying that there's a pet in the house."
Mr. Payne says he knows people who have spent at least $5,000 simply on the accessories for their dollhouses. He emphasizes that the hobby is not primarily for children.
"The figures are not made to be played with by kids," he says. "They are delicate and expensive."
Many people consider a dollhouse to be a piece of artwork, says Barb Schuckman, a handcrafter of miniature accessories in Bethpage, N.Y. Owners can rotate their accessories with the season. For example, Ms. Schuckman makes miniature menorahs that can be displayed in dollhouses during Hanukkah.
"It's an outlet for your creativity," she says. "It takes you out of your everyday life."

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