It was a bit of a bear to make this, but I’m glad I powered through!
In general, I prefer having miniature things to making them. And I am very good at sourcing things. But I couldn’t find a big, school-style blackboard from any of my usual miniature sources. It needed to be scaled to Dr. Hank McCoy, who is a big figure! So I built it from scratch.
Luckily, I save every single piece of miniature wooden trim!
I cut a backing board from illustration board and then framed it with several different trims to get the ledge for the chalk and eraser.
I had to miter cut the trim with my miniature miter-cutter, which I hate doing. I packed and moved the miter-cutter to Berlin knowing I would need it, and I have. But damn, it drives me nuts.
I pleated a piece of felt and glued it to a strip of trim, then cut it down, to make the eraser. Pesky!
For the board surface I used self-adhesive chalkboard vinyl.
It may not be as archival as chalkboard paint would have been, but it was neater and faster. I used two layers, for opacity, and I still only needed a tiny bit; I can give the rest to my friend with little kids.
And white gel pen was perfect for the writing – it even smears.
I did some work on the facade of the house today too; the whole thing is coming along. It’s damn near completely done, in just about a year. And then, the front garden, with gates. And then the Danger Room, underneath, and the Morlock subway tunnels under that, just like the laboratories and subway under the other dollhouse. I gotta make a custom Callisto…
Dollhouse planning drawings by Suzanne Forbes, Aug 30 2018
My first dollhouse became a kind of Valhalla, a safe haven for all the characters and stories I love. it is a large, unwieldy, fragile metaphor for healing, hope and closure.
I imagine the School for Gifted Youngsters will work in a similar way, but more specific. My feelings about the X-Men and The New Mutants are my strongest of all and there is a lot of processing happening within even starting this project.
Also, my first dollhouse took ten years to complete, so I must be out of my mind. But actually, not so much; I have a plan.
I knew from pretty early on in the construction of my first dollhouse, around 2000, that I would need a second dollhouse. I already had too many action figures, even then, and too many weird geek jokes and visual puns and obscure heart-wrenching vignettes to tell with them.
Plus, as more and more X-Men action figures were made, it became clear the X-Men and the New Mutants would need their own house.
As I searched for a second dollhouse over the last ten years, I knew I wanted it to look a certain way. More “mansion”, less Victorian curio. Designed to be front-opening and kept for display against a wall in the English “Dolls House” style rather than open in the back for play like an American “Dollhouse”.
And I wanted it to be a “quick-build” routed MDF style, for fuck’s sake, rather than the insanely laborious die-cut kits that are now almost completely replaced by slightly less laborious laser-cut kits.
I never want to do a die-cut kit again, though I’m glad that I did get the very last Cambridge Dollhouse available on the West Coast in 2000. (For some reason I was obsessively determined that the Cambridge was superior to the nearly identical Greenleaf Beacon Hill).
There’s an excellent explanation of the different types of dollhouse kits here on Mysterious Miniatures for anyone curious about the hell that is punching out and sanding hundreds of die-cut pieces from a stack of 1/8″ plywood sheets. You can also see lots of pictures and read more about the process of building my first house here.
Below, the far superior routed/sawn MDF pieces of my Gables Dolls House kit, primed and laid out yesterday.
The reason I pulled the trigger and bought my first dollhouse kit was that the model I had been eyeing suddenly disappeared from the tiny pool of online shops that existed then.
Windows for the new house primed and drying before painting.
Panicked, I called all over, looking for a Cambridge, and actually found one, the last one, at The Hobby Co. of San Francisco on Geary. I hauled the box home in triumph and terror, and spent the next three years just building the structure.
Of course, I “kitbashed” the hell out of it too, custom building the extension, rebuilding the dormers and adding new walls and high quality Houseworks wooden windows and doors.
To use routed wood doors and windows I had to reinforce all the interior and exterior walls individually, from 1/8″ to 3/8″, cutting all the pieces to size. Without power tools.
I had to learn to solder to use tape wire for the electrification, because it didn’t have grooves for round wire. It was insane, and I said “I am never doing this again”.
So I kept an eye out for a front-opening, high-quality, quick-build dollhouse that was also really cheap. For a decade.
During that time several models I liked went on and off the market. I didn’t have the wherewithal, on many levels, to acquire any of the models I liked. I finally completely finished the first house and added the landscaping, walls and greenhouse in Oakland around 2013, but I waited to secure it to its base because I knew we were leaving the US.
I knew if we moved to Europe I’d have access to a completely different dollhouse kit supply chain, the mother lode of front-opening English dollhouses. And when we did, I started researching and pinning and comparing all the houses available. I got my first house set up and truly finished here in 2015.
It had to fit a very specific space, and be a very specific style. After two years of research, I had pretty much settled on The Gables kit from The Dolls House Workshop, a family-run British company.
It was gorgeous, it fit the space next to the first house perfectly, it had big rooms, it had an entry hall, it had bay windows, it had an attic for Ororo, and it was the very epitome of quick-build, including channels routed for the goddam wiring.
Most of all, it was incredibly cheap for a heirloom dollhouse kit, only £209 when they can run to the thousands.
So I was thinking about it, but I am cheap and terrified of spending large sums, so I was hesitating.
Then it started disappearing from the four online sites I had it pinned from. Marked “Discontinued”, then “Permanently Discontinued”. It was still listed on the company’s own site, so after a week of nerve-wracking waiting til my Patreon money came in, I wildly took the plunge and ordered it. Two days of euphoric planning and excitement later, I got an email from DollsHouse Workshop.
They politely explained the kit had been discontinued some time ago and it shouldn’t have been on the site.
They would process me a refund. I was crushed and at a loss. I just didn’t know what to do next. None of their other models had the turned wood windows l love, were the right size, or even had grooves for the damn wiring. The other companies’ houses didn’t move me the same way.
After a couple of days of moping, I emailed the company to check on the refund, which hadn’t shown up. I mentioned that I was devastated, that I had really wanted that particular house. I don’t why I did, I guess I just figured it couldn’t hurt to share my truth!
Later that day, I got an email back from Kelly Wiltshire-Tokeley, co-director of the company, saying she had tracked one down and it would ship that week!
What an angel! Isn’t that amazing?
Oh joy! Oh happiness! The X-Men will have a home at last!
Seriously, this is such a big deal. And of course, such a big project.
Even a quick-build dollhouse is a huge DIY project, with many stages, many decisions, and many materials involved. First I did a dry build, to check for fit and parts.
Then I had to prime. The MDF walls had to be primed with a specialty MDF primer, and the turned wooden parts primed with a wood primer.
On the left you can see some of them! Our whole house smells like primer right now. The stairs will be stained with gel stain, which I’ve ordered.
I have all the paint ready for the exterior and have ordered all the wallpaper and carpets. Putting those in before actual final assembly will make a difference of at least a hundred hours’ labor between this house and the first house.
I will use modern battery powered LED lights and run a single wire through each room rather than tapewiring the whole thing.
Plus, this house has a perfectly simple rectilinear floor plan, rather than the incredibly complex layout of House #1. Which I think I will call SlurkCroft, from now on.
So I’m not making any promises or predictions, but I’m hopeful that the School for Gifted Youngsters will be open by Christmas.
Dollhouse Underground Laboratory by Suzanne Forbes. Photo by Daria Rein.
I finished the Underground Superpowers Laboratory beneath my action figure dollhouse, after almost twenty years.
Suzanne Forbes by Daria Rein
And gave a super-fun party to reveal it to friends and the Patreon Patrons whose monthly support makes my art possible. It was so lovely to show off this ridiculous project, completed after so many years, to people who really got it and enjoyed it.
I was especially lucky that Daria was there to take these beautiful photographs with her clever new lens which clips onto her belt like a superhero gadget.
As you can see, there are brocade panels that fit into the dollhouse base, covering the individual laboratories. They have grosgrain ribbon tabs, allowing them to be quickly removed, revealing the LED-illuminated rooms behind them!
Doc Ock and the Lizard having a shouting match in the back of the Tube Room is my idea of a hilarious joke.
Dollhouse Underground Superpowers Laboratory Tube Room by Suzanne Forbes by Daria Rein
Dollhouse Underground Superpowers Laboratory Tube Room by Suzanne Forbes by Daria Rein
Because you know the old-school tweaker Spider-Man Rogue’s Gallery would bitchily fight over everything from the brand of coffee in the break room to the voltage for galvanic experiments.
It wasn’t til I put him in the Tube Room that I had the idea of someone leaving their coffee on Han. Hilarious, right???
I got the excellent resin cast copy of the Han Solo in Carbonite convention exclusive on eBay. It’s from one of the artisans who does action figure casting. I painted him myself, an easy job.
The amazing Creature figure is from Resurrection of Monstress, definitely the best action figure series ever.
Dollhouse Underground Superpowers Laboratory Tube Room by Suzanne Forbes, photo by Daria Rein
My other favorite joke is Vasquez from Aliens and Aeryn Sun from Farscape as the Veterans of Very Foreign Wars. There is an individual LED over the operating theater, which offsets the extreme Cool White of the LEDs in the surgery, but I forgot to turn it on in all the excitement.
Dollhouse Underground Superpowers Surgery by Suzanne Forbes, photo by Daria Rein
Dollhouse Underground Superpowers Surgery by Suzanne Forbes by Daria Rein
The black-haired winged figure on the gurney is the one who started it all. She was an accessory to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligali figure from Mezco’s Silent Screamers series who I got in 2000 or so.
Something about her hospital-blue gown which opened at the back gave me the idea of this super-powers laboratory, a Human Augmentation center. The wings which fit her perfectly turned up at the same time; I cut them off some other figure. The gurney came from the McFarlane X-Files figures.
I found a resin Christmas ornament dog with matching wings soon after.
I decided the dog should go in the Animal Sciences/gym room, as surely poor Franklin Richards needs a dog! After all the child has been through quite a lot.
Dollhouse Animal Uplift Room and Gym by Suzanne Forbes. Photo by Daria Rein.
Then I gave the dog a pet pangolin because why not?
Dollhouse Animal Uplift Room and Gym by Suzanne Forbes. Photo by Daria Rein.
I thought it would be nice if Reed was doing something useful and nurturing for a change so that’s why he’s making food for the animals.
Once I get the new Walgreen’s Exclusive Marvel Legends Reed with stretch arms I’ll have him using his powers to make the food.
When I realized the tiny spandex workout clothes I had from the 00’s American Girl 1/12th scale dolls would fit She-Hulk, I was over the moon.
She-Hulk waving the weight bar around wondering how anyone expects her to exercise with such tiny weights- hilarious!
Truly, I am easily amused.
Dollhouse Machine Shop by Suzanne Forbes. Photo by Daria Rein.
The Machine Shop/Break Room came out really well.
It is so pleasing to me to have made this. It is so satisfying to have nearly twenty years of collecting and searching and planning finished at last. It is sillier than the dollhouse itself, less of a sacred repository for the stories that saved me. It’s more about the visceral thrills of science fiction and comics, the ooky body-horror of mutation and the exhilarating potential of Frankenstein’s monster. The Batman tv show I watched as a child, with the super villain lairs and gadgets, played a part too. Olaf Stapleton’s Odd John and Sirius.
All the transcendent wonder and horror of the notion that we can change our bodies and become more…something.
Dollhouse underground Machine shop by Suzanne Forbes photo by Daria Rein
Dollhouse Machine Shop by Suzanne Forbes. Photo by Daria Rein.
Thanks so much to DariaRein for the photos! Including this gorgeous one of the Vegan Chocolate Cake with Vegan Chocolate Mousse I made 🙂
Vegan chocolate cake with vegan chocolate mousse. Photo by Daria Rein.
This is my dollhouse. I built it myself, and it took over a decade.
My dollhouse is a memory palace for every story I’ve ever cherished, a way to hold close every character I love and the things they taught me about being human.
It’s a safe house for my dreams. It holds my recollections of the times those characters gave me strength when nothing else did, and this week it is finally, truly finished.
I’d wanted a big fancy dollhouse my whole adult life, but I had always resisted. In ’96, when I was working at Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown and living in Arlington, there was a dollhouse store nearby.
It shared a parking lot with the building where my recovery meetings were, and I carefully arranged to be there only when it was closed. I used to peer in the windows, and say to myself, “Not yet.”
I had never lived anywhere I could imagine staying for the rest of my life. I knew my decorator crab shell couldn’t support the financial and psychic overhead of a huge, heavy, utterly fragile dollhouse.
It was starting a collection of 6″ (1/12th scale) superhero action figures in my mid 30’s that led me to begin building my dollhouse.
I didn’t start collecting 6″ figures on purpose. I had some female superhero action figures in the 90’s 5″ scale around, X-Men women and an Invisible Woman I got when I was driving the truck of my belongings from DC to Berkeley in ’97. In ’98 a co-worker San Francisco start-up who had a crush on me gave me the DC Direct Death figure, and I took her out of the package and saw that she was exactly the right size for a dollhouse.
I’d heard they were going to make more dollhouse scale figures of DC and Marvel characters. I knew then I was done holding out against the completely silly business of miniatures.
So I started collecting figures, and planning a dollhouse for them. They needed a place to live! Little did I know how long they would wait.
I made sketches of scenes I imagined the dollhouse including, like this one. The entire ten-year labor of my dollhouse was for this one joke. It’s still hilarious to me! I am an idiot. But a happy idiot.
The Edward Scissorhands figure is a customized mashup of the McFarlane one, for the likeness, and a Japanese figure with a generic face that was closer to the correct scale.
In 2001 or so I bought a die-cut 1/8” plywood dollhouse kit, the cheapest and most labor-intensive kind of kit. I had fallen in love with its style, a ridiculous Addams Family mansard-roofed Victorian, and none of the easy-build kits appealed to me.
A die-cut kit is a box of plywood sheets with hundreds of pieces you have to punch out, sand, prime and paint.
I had never built any kind of kit before, so it seemed reasonable to me to start with a huge Victorian. Being as I’m not very reasonable.
Halfway through building I learned that if I wanted to use the fancy, detailed pre-made doors and windows from HouseWorks instead of the flimsy ones that came with the kit, i would need 3/8″-1/2″ thick walls.
So I painstakingly, insanely, cut pieces of heavier wood to fit every wall of the partially assembled dollhouse. I didn’t have any power tools, so I used a hacksaw and exacto knife to cut everything.
Cutting the shingles for the roof to fit perfectly took months, because half the time they split and were useless.
Then I decided it wasn’t big enough, so I scratch-built the extension you see on the right side. This is called kitbashing in the dollhouse world.
This is my other favorite joke. What’s even better is what my Beloved Ex-Boyfriend Clear said about it: “I bet Constantine paid Harry to take a dive.”
I read that soldered wiring was less likely to fail than brad wiring, so I took the mostly finished house to Jim Cooper’s Dollhouse Studio in Benicia and he taught me how to solder wiring, and I wired the whole house.
Then I started wallpapering and staining trim and painting windows and installing moldings. After a couple of years I just couldn’t stand it anymore; I absolutely hated cutting the little beveled moldings so they lined up right.
So I took the house back to Cooper’s and wonderful June Gailey, a lovely senior lady who spent her days working on dollhouse projects at Cooper’s, finished the interior detailing. It took about a year.
June & Jim with my dollhouse when I first brought it to June.
Meanwhile, for like 7 years I’d been collecting stuff to go in it.
The weirdest stuff I could find.
Babies and tiny jars to put them in, spellbooks, poison bottles, skulls, canopic jars, squid, rayguns, test tube sets and labware, sinister medical tools, urine and blood samples, gimp hoods, whips, handcuffs, stockings, and course fancy food, especially lots and lots of cake, and as many coffee makers as i could secure.
The stuff came from four main sources:
-action figure accessories, mainly Todd Mcfarlane
-handmade by miniature artisans
-commercially made miniatures
-and Re-Ment and MegaHouse blind box miniatures from Japan.
Friends gave me some of the most special things, like the handmade Doubtful Guest.
I made all of Bettie’s vibrators and sex toys myself- there are some mini sex toys available but they’re in 1/18 scale. That was how I began to sculpt for the first time.
And I collected a LOT of action figures. Like, a really frightening lot. They kept coming out with more figures, of characters I adored!
Who would ever have guessed they’d make an X-Men movie, and toys to go with it? Who could have imagined they’d make Lord of the Rings movies?
Who could have imagined that the comic/SF/Fantasy culture I’d grown up on would become popular in the mainstream, and then hugely, commercially viable? Or that adults collecting toys would go from ironic and clever to simply ordinary?
I sure as hell wouldn’t have.
My dollhouse in 2008.
The house itself was finally finished in the Fall of 2008, when I had lost my (human-size) house in a double-whammy divorce/real estate collapse and was living in a small apartment in Albany.
I had already boxed up some of my figures and put them in storage, so I couldn’t access the Wolverine I wanted to use for the shrubbery joke or my custom Edward.
I put an assortment of the figures I had around in the house, and realized it looked ridiculous without landscaping. I started on the flowers for the landscaping, and then the Great Recession hit.
My art business collapsed, and I moved to a smaller apartment, and then to a friend’s basement.
The dollhouse went into storage for almost three years. But life is made of second chances, and in 2011 I moved in with my now-husband, to a beautiful little Craftsmen fourplex in Oakland.
One of my beloved friend-muse-patrons and her husband carried my dollhouse up our narrow, twisting stairs.
I will never forget that moment, watching a small circus-athlete woman and her tall geek husband dancing around each other as they moved the single creative object I’ve spent the most time on in my life.
It was such a testament to marriage, to friendship, to love and to trust. It was goddam amazing, and they got it upstairs in perfect safety.
So I built the landscaping at last, using balsa wood for the brick walls, and finally found the perfect greenhouse on eBay.
I painted the greenhouse, cut paths out of faux brick tiles, and painted and poured the resin pond I had been planning for a decade.
I put all the furnishings and accessories back in, and restored the figures that had been in it in Albany. My Swamp Thing was still somewhere in storage.
Our little jewel-box apartment was only 800 square feet, and I didn’t dare open any of the ten boxes of figures in my storage locker.
I decided the shrubbery joke would have to wait a while longer, until I lived somewhere I could put down roots.
Packing the dollhouse and its contents for Berlin was deranged.
I shaped tin foil shields over the furnishings attached to the walls, carefully stuffed the entire house with acid-free tissue, and built cardboard structures that precisely covered every part of the outside.
Then I bubble-wrapped it, and then I shrink-wrapped it, and then I had it professionally crated.
I sold tons of my vintage clothing collection to pay for the crating; it was the only thing we had crated.
Lifting the crate into the shipping container took three guys, including the abnormal wiry strength of SFSlim; unloading it here took four healthy young Australians.
I waited almost three months to unwrap it here, because I wanted to get most of the art hung up and stuff put away, and I needed to rebuild the enormous chambered rolling base it sits on.
But I did it, and then I screwed the dollhouse to its base for the first time.
Because we hope to live here the rest of our lives, and it was time for all my heroes to have a home.
I knelt and said prayers of gratitude as I unpacked my figures and tiny things, to everyone who’d helped me bring something so huge and yet so tiny, so silly and yet so serious, so old-fashioned and so full of plastic, to such a distant land. I have never felt so safe and so whole.
Next, I’m going to start building the underground Danger Room, superhero powers testing facilities, laboratories and stables.
I’ve got fourteen X-Men figures who’ve been waiting for a place to train for a long time.
Want to support my regular old art-type art on my Patreon?