For artists and designers accustomed to considering both form and function, working in miniature affords outsize opportunities for experimentation.
Little furniture, none over seven inches tall. Clockwise from left: a daybed by Linde Freya Tangelder, a prototype of Gustavo Barroso’s Green Slime Chair: Mini and a chair by Tangelder and Clarisse Bruynbroeck. Credit... Photograph by Alyona Kuzmina. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy Design Of Three Storey Building Render
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LAST DECEMBER, THE French ceramist Solenne Belloir was working in her studio in Paris’s 11th Arrondissement when a potential customer came in asking about a piece in the window: a spindly white chair with a high back that suggests a throne for a pixie, and which she wanted to buy for a little girl. “I said, ‘I think it’s very fragile for a child,’” Belloir recalls, “ ‘and maybe dangerous.’” With slender, snappable legs, the 6½-inch-tall chair, hand-built from stoneware, was not designed for a dollhouse but rather as a sculptural object, one of 30 that Belloir started making in 2020 while taking a break from producing the expressive but exactingly constructed housewares for which she is known: glossy fruit baskets assembled from fat tubes of latticed clay and spherical stoneware bud vases with towers of delicate scaffolding. The chairs allowed her to create pieces that didn’t need to serve a purpose. “The fact that no one has to sit on them gives me so much freedom,” she says.
Belloir, 29, is one of a crop of artists and designers making miniature sculptures modeled on some of the most useful objects we live with — our furniture. In Amsterdam this fall, the Dutch writer and artist Mariëtte Wijne exhibited a collection of matchbox-size sofas and tables she had pieced together from litter (shards of midnight blue tile formed surfaces; lengths of discarded red electrical wire were refashioned into hairpin legs); in Antwerp, Belgium, the acclaimed Dutch designer Linde Freya Tangelder displayed diminutive variations on some of her raw, experimental furniture, including a small-scale version of the deconstructed Medallion chair she created for Dior in 2020, a stark three-legged seat composed of lozenges of hand-sanded aluminum; and in New York, the emerging Brazilian-born furniture designer Gustavo Barroso was prototyping miniatures of his goopy resin-coated Green Slime chair to sell as collectible objects. In London, Faye Toogood, the polymathic designer whose warm, witty riffs on minimalism have helped define the millennial aesthetic, was sculpting two- to four-inch-high clay models of chairs and benches — both as part of her process for making larger works and as art objects in themselves. “Ordinarily, the maquettes would be thrown away,” she says. “But now I’m keeping them and obsessing over them.”
THE URGE TO shrink our belongings to portable proportions is not new. The ancient Egyptians would bury ushabtis — small faience, stone or wood renderings of human figures, animals and, occasionally, furniture — with their dead in the hope that they might smuggle material wealth into the afterlife. Similarly, through much of Asia, people have long burned tiny, intricate paper furniture at funerals and festivals as an offering to deceased ancestors. Miniatures have also been a convenient way for the living to display their wealth: take the advent of netsuke — palmable wood or ivory sculptures that depict everything from rabbits to thatched cottages — in Edo-era Japan, or the invention of the dollhouse in the Dutch golden age as a fanciful stage for imported Chinese porcelain trinkets, petite handwoven baskets and thumbnail-size paintings. But for the artists now making miniature furniture, the aim is not to show off but to explore: Working in tabletop scale brings forms to eye level, inviting us to inspect them more closely. It also reverses our relationship with furniture’s function, transforming objects intended to hold us into things we can hold — and interrogating the purpose of design itself.
“It’s like you’re in a dream where everything is out of proportion and shrinking,” says Wijne, 57, who turned to miniatures last year when she found herself roaming a trash-strewn beach on the Greek Aegean island of Samos and newly in love. “Everything beamed at me,” she says, including Delft blue plastic bottle lids, which she later arranged in delicate still lifes, a project that evolved into designing, among other dioramas, a tiny brutalist living room with an arcing floor lamp made from the rubber floater of a fishing net and a cabinet of corrugated Styrofoam. To Wijne, turning litter into something precious and suggestive of utility forces us to acknowledge how much we throw away and to imagine how it might be reused.
Trash was also a cue for Toogood, 45. Watching her children play with scrap materials in her studio inspired her to reconsider the models that she often discarded. Toogood has always made small prototypes: doll-size garments for her line of clothing, and quick mock-ups in cardboard and tape for furniture, including for her famous Roly Poly chair, with an ice cream scoop-like seat and elephantine legs that she first released in 2014. But in 2020, she began to appreciate the miniatures themselves for retaining an impulsive, gestural vulnerability she felt had been sapped from her work. “I liken making them to how the Surrealists did their automatic drawings,” she says. “It allowed their subconscious to come to the surface.” That September, she showed many of the almost 300 maquettes she’d produced that year, even for pieces she never realized, as part of her 2020 collection, Assemblage 6, alongside full-scale versions copied, with unusual precision, from some of the prototypes.
Tangelder, 35, started showing miniatures at a similar point in her career. Last year, after partnering with the Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina, she wanted to work on something spontaneous. Maquettes could be made without a metal shop or considering the needs of a customer, who might not enjoy stretching out on a hard lacquered mahogany daybed shaped like an open book perched on four crates — one of the works she showed in miniature at Valerie Traan Gallery in Antwerp this fall. Crafting tiny pieces by hand fulfilled a need, she says, for “the primitive.”
To Barroso, 27, producing scaled-down models of his irreverent limited-edition and one-of-a-kind furniture is a way to reach a wider audience. “I can’t even afford the stuff I make,” says the designer, who graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2019. He’s trying to bring the price of his Nickelodeon-inspired Green Slime chair down from $2,500 for the original to $250 for a small 3-D-printed version, and refers to the tiny, oozy chairs as toys or collectibles, hoping the approach will appeal to people who don’t consider themselves furniture buffs. “As soon as something has function, it becomes design, not art,” he says. “This isn’t about design. The chair was already solved. This is about art and acknowledging our own human redundancies and ridiculousness.”
Which raises the question: Why make furniture at all if it has no use? For Belloir, the answer, beyond the simple satisfaction of the exercise, is the same as it was for the Egyptians: that these tiny models, even while empty, have the power of effigies, alluding to the presence of former sitters, or invoking sitters who may never come. “The chairs have personality, character,” she says. “They’re like little friends.”
Rendering For High-Rise Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy