Parisian-Californian Elfi Frequin-Mckown makes gorgeous dollhouses that have you wishing you were to scale and able to live in them (or maybe that’s just me). Victorian-style and hauntingly pretty, artist Frequin-Mckown talks to us about her process designing and constructing miniature estates. She also talks to us about dolls. Yeah, she’s a doll maker, too. Who else is going to live in her mini-mansions?
Where did your interest in dollhouses start?
When I was a kid growing up in Paris, my grandmother would take me to this little store near the Grevin Museum called La Boite a Joujoux (“the toy box”). I would marvel for what seemed like hours at every little item they were selling, but it was all so expensive so all we did was watch. My favorite part was the lighting inside the dollhouses, bringing them to life. I was also very interested in miniature work and wanted to grow up to be a miniaturist. One of my favorite places was the miniature museum.
I have also always been fascinated by dolls and architecture, especially old buildings, and observing how people lived and decorated their homes, my favorite being any time between the 1850s and 1930s (for furniture, I also love anything mid century). I would draw floor plans up and invent family trees and try to make it as realistic as it would be for people living in a specific era. When I was six my father built me a dollhouse that I really loved (it was later destroyed by a flood in the basement). My father was a set carpenter and would take me to movie sets, I loved the attention to details given, some of my favorite were the sets of The City of Lost Children (very dark), The Ninth Gate (the bookstore and the apartment) and a French movie about modern witches called Un Amour de Sorciere. I still pay close attention to all the interior design details when watching any movie or tv show.
Who are some artists that inspire you?
Dame Darcy was the one that made me want to create my own little dolls, I just loved hers and the fact that she uses human hair for the dolls’ hair. Other dollmakers I love are Lisa Perrin (paper dolls), Black Eyed Suzie, Christine Alvarado from Du Buh Du Design and Kerry Kate from October Effigies. Most of the artists that inspire me are on Etsy, they create dolls, stuffed animals/monsters, doll clothes and dollhouse items and furniture that are often extraordinary. I also really admire Wes Anderson’s unique esthetic in movies. I would say Michel Gondry and Tim Burton’s as well.
Your style is within this gothic to victorian range—tell us more about that. What are some style inspirations?
While not an expert in History, I have always been interested in it and would love to recreate specific scenes in the future. I usually get references from books, photographs and movies depicting the era. Victorian is the most common style for a dollhouse so it makes it easy to find items that would work. Gothic style has always appealed to me and I am currently working on a little cottage (for the competition) trying to make it look like a modern psychic/witch home. Modern homes are also fun to make but only with original and outstanding designs (there are items that exist such as flat screen tv, computer, etc. and I have no interest in that type of thing, to me it would make a dollhouse pretty boring. Maybe because it is too close to this decade and what we see everywhere in real life). It is also fun to think of out of the ordinary scenes, like a mental ward or a mad scientist lab.
What about interior design? Is that something you’re interested in?
I am! I would probably enjoy taking a few interior design classes to further my knowledge in the subject. It would be an interesting career choice for my wife and I, and, if anything, would definitely be a useful tool for future dollhouse work.
How much of the dollhouse do you make yourself? Like, assembly of the house, sure, but what about furniture and knick knacks?
I learned how to design and build things from watching my parents (my father carpenter and set decorator, and my mother artist and carpenter), and I do a bit of both. I started with buying items off ebay, etsy, and specialized websites such as miniatures.com as well as scouting estate sales. I like making little items such as candles, frames, doll sized photographs, posters, correspondence, etc. I am currently lacking the space and material needed for me to fully bring my ideas to life but it is in process.
About how long does it take you to complete a room? What’s your process like?
I like to take my time to find the perfect items I need for each room because I have very specific ideas on how each room should look, so it can take months to complete. For example even though the big dollhouse (my latest project) has a victorian style to it, my wife Heather (a fan of the1950s) really wanted the kitchen and part of the house to be mid century and we went that way in picking the furniture and accessories. One of the fun part is the flooring and wallpaper but it can either make or break a room if not thought carefully, end design in mind. It can be tricky to know exactly how I will design the room before knowing what furniture and items will be in it. I like to mix things up a little.
What’s your favorite part of creating dollhouses? Least favorite thing?
My least favorite? All the necessary parts: working on the exterior of a dollhouse can be very time consuming and frustrating: painting and gluing each siding and roof shingles one by one, the tiny parts of windows and doors, and any additional decorations… The result is always worth the labor but it isn’t fun. Same goes for wallpapers, floorings, etc. Setting up electricity is also a very long and frustrating process but I wouldn’t do without the lighting as to me it really brings vibrance to any dollhouse.
Working on decorating the inside is the fun part. Adding little details to the doors such as a handle, picking up or making the furniture, accessories, pets, dolls, the little details here and there, and finally bring our vision to life. It’s definitely the most exciting part.
There is a competition this winter that you’re entering. Can you tell us about that? What is it and what’s required for your submission?
The competition is a creativity contest organized each year by miniature.com. This year, each person had to purchase the shell/kit of a one room “little cottage” in order to enter. Everyone then starts with the same house but they can do whatever they want to it and remodel it. The top four winners get a gift certificate (between $200 and $1,000) to spend on the website. It is very exciting but the competition is fierce, there are a lot of very talented dollhouse artists out there.
What about dolls? I’ve heard that you create dolls, as well. Tell us more!
A few years ago I purchased my first Blythe doll and had a lot of fun sewing her clothes. I haven’t really gotten into customizing though (when one redoes the face of a doll). I later bought another so I could reroot her hair (a long process that requires sewing a few hair at a time to the doll’s bold scalp) using my grandmother’s red hair from the 70s that she had kept all these years. Using human hair gives a doll a sort of creepy feel but at the same time looks gorgeous. I am planning on doing this on Susie Sad Eyes dolls. I also learned how to make 1/12th dollhouse size polimer clay dolls from Dame Darcy and made a few for my own use.
What came first? Dolls or their houses? Do you make homes for the dolls or the other way around? (Or are the two entirely separate)
Heather and I collect dolls and vintage (1930s-1970s) toy figurines, so dolls came first I suppose. My first idea was to build a house for Blythe Dolls but their size makes it too big of a project. I have been wanting to build 1/12th scale dollhouses since childhood but always thought it was too difficult, time consuming and expensive of a project. It is, but it is also so much fun (with a lot of patience) and so beautiful and rewarding once you finish it. The biggest dollhouse I built was supposed to be a joint project with Heather but she ran away after seeing the thousands of pieces it came in.
What other art forms/mediums interest you?
I’ve been making stuffed monsters for friends for years and it’s a fun hobby, I plan on eventually making more and sell them on etsy. I am also interested in screen printing on fabric so I could design fabric dolls and pillows.
You’re from Paris, but living in San Diego now—given this duality, what are the differences between French versus American dolls (and dollhouses)?
Interestingly (I never thought about it), there actually isn’t much of a difference. I haven’t seen any typical French dollhouses because most people love Victorian style dollhouses so much, no matter where they’re from. I like the sense of community that unites doll and dollhouse collectors from all over the world.
You’re a big Tim Burton fan… Would you be interested in doing any stop animation or anything of that nature with your dollhouses?
I never thought about it but it would definitely be something I’d be interested in. You should write us a script!
Renée Aubern is a California born, New York bred poet, writer of songs, and kook. Constantly on the move, she documents the world around her in photographs and notebook scribbles. @reneeaubern