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.
Dang, I have been consumed with this long-delayed project!
SOOO much to do. So many things to figure out. So much foamcore to cut and glue. So many pipes to make out of styrene and straws!
But I am really making serious progress.
Three of the rooms are almost complete, the operating theater (above), the Tube Room, and the Machine Shop.
What on earth is a Tube Room, you might ask.
Well, in the 90s I had a dear friend named Rob Simpson, who was an editor at DC. We were talking about superhero powers, as we did so often, and he said there was a simple solution to most things in comics.
Somebody loses their powers/needs superpowers? “Put ’em in a tube!” Somebody is dead and needs to be restored to life? “Put ’em in a tube!” Somebody has an evil entity possessing their psyche and needs to be held in stasis so they don’t destroy the world? “Put ’em in a tube!”
Tubes are also known as pods or stasis chambers. Basically they are a MacGuffin where anything can happen. The McFarlane Toys X-Files line from the Oughts provided most of these tubes.
They were intended for alien containment of some kind. I built out the structure around the one above using illustration board covered with chrome selbstklebefolie, which is like contact paper you can’t remove, styrene tubes and the various lids of things painted chrome.
The Machine Shop also contains the break room/coffee bar.
I figured people would be constantly bothering the engineers in the shop for things they want fixed anyway, so they might as well get their coffee while they’re there. The two women robots are “Platinum” from the Metal Men and Angie Spica, “Engineer” from The Authority.
All the rooms are missing a lot of signage and posters (I’m working on figuring out how to get the best results from the self-adhesive inkjet-printable paper I’m using) plus safety tape.
On the right you can see I’m making stanchions for a safety rail using dowels, epoxy clay and blue pearl half-rounds I kept for eight years because I had a feeling I might need them for something.
Most importantly, all the labs need their ceiling panels and lights.
My beloved Friend-Muse-Patron Monique Motil, a fellow creator of Small Art, will bring the lights in May, and then I’ll figure out how to install them, woohoo!
Yes, there will be a “Safety Third” sign!
First Laboratory post is here. Main dollhouse post here.
I’ve had the plan for it for at least a decade, and the specific structure set up for a good six years. And I’ve had some of the props for it for TWENTY FREAKING YEARS.
Well, I like to say that the older I get, the longer my game gets.
Sometimes in art it takes as long as it takes, and that’s fine.
I figured out how to build the wheeled base for my action figure dollhouse back in Oakland, using IKEA Kallax bookshelves.
I assembled them, and hired a taskrabbit to help me with the construction of a platform to attach them to so they could support the dollhouse.
But it seemed crazy to ship IKEA furniture to Berlin, so I took the base apart when the dollhouse was professionally crated, and we sold the Kallax shelves on Craigslist.
“Doc, it hurts when I go like this!” “So don’t go like that.”
That meant I had to get new ones here, assemble them, and then build a new base. (I did keep the high quality wheels with brakes I bought!)
For a person who is as deeply lazy as me, I have created a life that often involves a fucking lot of work.
For the past two years I’ve been working on getting all the other projects I brought with us done, and finishing the full-size house (still at 95%). Most importantly, I’m making new art, working on building our community and growing my Patreon.
Finally, the dust is clearing enough to tackle the laboratories.
I have so much cool stuff to put in them! There’s just a bunch of diorama-building, model-building, scratch-building and electrifying work to get them ready to hold my two decades of collected weird body-horror, super-power, Island of Dr. Moreau mad scientist STUFF.
I’m not really crazy about the actual construction part of model and dollhouse-building, but I value the workout it gives my brain. Since everything is scratch-built or Frankensteined from components of other things, each part requires a new solution. I have to learn about new materials, source them as cheaply as possible, figure out what I have that can be salvaged, scrapped or rebuilt. And everything has to be customized to work together.
This is an example of how existing stuff can be enhanced: these amazing display screens are accessories for figures from a Dr. Who spin-off show.
However, all Dr. Who toys are 5″ tall or approximately 1/18 scale, rather than the normal dollhouse scale of 1/12 (one inch to one foot).
So I built up the bases to make them the right height for 6″ action figures. I just need to paint them to match.
Same with the little water cooler; I built it a styrene platform. I hadn’t used styrene in a long time, and I’d forgotten how amazing it is.
You score it and it breaks perfectly cleanly; you can glue it or paint it so easily. I used balsa wood for the kitbash of the dollhouse itself, and only got into styrene during the sleigh build. Going forward I plan to use styrene a lot more.
I built the bases and the upper platforms, which make it easier to see the things at the back of the deep cubbies, out of foamcore.
Foamcore is a material I’m not experienced with, but in this case it’s a good solution. The dollhouse-scale molded tile floors (I got the beige and black one for the Tube Room at least eighteen years ago, and have been saving it!) are attached with double-sided carpet tape. Almost any glue will heat up enough during curing to warp the thin, vacuum-formed plastic.
The side walls are illustration board covered with white vinyl contact paper, which gives a nice satin sheen. It’s cheaper and faster than dollhouse wallpaper, and perfect for this kind of industrial/medical look. The ceilings will be foamcore with leds embedded in them for lighting. When I built the dollhouse I learned to solder and used tapewire, but miniature lighting has improved tremendously in the last twenty years.
LEDS, which don’t heat up, last practically forever, come in the tiniest sizes and all kinds of colors, can be embedded directly in surfaces.
Because anything you mail from the US takes forever and/or gets lost. Seriously, don’t ever mail us anything bigger than a postcard.
I’ve been waiting for some Tacky Wax (museum wax) I ordered from Amazon, thinking it shipped from the EU, for three weeks.
I used aluminum tape to get some clean metal stripping here and there.
It’s tricky to use and tends to mark up and wrinkle over large areas, so I’m sparing with it. Same with the clear styrene panels that divide the upper and lower areas: it scratches easily so I use it mostly as an accent. I have rhinestuds that will become rivets, fine yellow wire for extension cords, and so much weird stuff to put in the cabinets, once I get my dang Tacky Wax.
Earlier this year I discovered that action figure photography is a thing.
Like, a huge thing. There are all these groups on Instagram of guys – it’s only guys, as far as I can tell – taking serious photos of their 6″ (dollhouse) scale action figures. As the toy photography culture has grown, props for it have also become a thing. And a company called Extreme-Sets (which tells you a lot about the dudebro culture of the toy photo groups) has emerged, creating pop-up cardboard sets for your action figure photo shoots.
When they came out with a subway station that had a NYC subway map and a subway car that looked like a classic NY car, I knew I had to have them.
Look at this, you can practically hear Electro saying “Ayy, whaddaya whaddaya?”
But shipping was ruinously expensive. Lucky for me, some friend-muse-patrons were coming to Berlin for Thanksgiving!
Once I opened my new sets, I set about kitbashing them. Kitbashing is a term from the model car world, I believe, that I learned after it found its way into dollhouse culture.
My dollhouse, for example, is a radical kitbash of a standard dollhouse kit.
I trimmed down some elements of the Extreme-Sets station and changed their proportions so it would feel truer to an 80s’-era station.
I customized my station by cutting the panels apart and melding them back together in new forms. That way I could feature the subway map and have the parts of the panels I liked best clearly displayed.
I added a poster for the original Terminator movie. It’s 1984 in my subway station.
I mounted the panels on the deconstructed interior of the IKEA door modules on the bottom center cubbies of my dollhouse, using carpet tape. I spackled the grooves where the panels met and colored the spackle to match.
Then I tagged the station and the train car with the tags of my 80s graffiti writer boyfriends and people I knew back in the day, and my own tag, with my crew, Acid Writers. I posted what I was working on Instagram, with the hashtag “AcidWriters”. It showed up as an official hashtag, so I browsed through the images, and saw people I recognized.
That’s when I found out another one of my boyfriends from the 80s was dead.
We had a high-risk lifestyle. I don’t know why I had expected he’d be alive. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about what he was doing in many years. There’s so much grief and loss from those days; I don’t borrow trouble. Matt was drinking hard by the time he was twelve.
Making art, and my dollhouse in particular, is a way of processing grief and turning it into tribute.
Berlin is a recursive, palimpsest city, drilled down deep into the underworld, like New York.It seems completely right to build a tunnel to the past under my dollhouse here, a secret shrine with coded messages.
Stories are the immortality of love, and telling my stories are my tribute to the dead.
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.
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