The Private Life of a Dolls' House Secret Knowledge


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The Private Life of a Dolls' House

Lauren Child explores the history of dolls' houses, speaks to craftspeople who create perfect miniatures and meets collectors willing to pay big money for tiny objects of desire.


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MUSIC: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane

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'Dolls' houses have been around for over 400 years.

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'They are often symbols of a child's dream world...

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'..but this is not the whole story.

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'From a shoe box house

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'to the most lavish mansion for the serious collector,

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'they have a unique ability to enthral.

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But what is it that gives the doll's house

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the power to cast a spell, beyond childhood?

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'I'm Lauren Child -

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'author, illustrator and creator of Charlie And Lola.

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'I've always been drawn to dolls' houses...

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'..and that passion for the miniature world

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'continues to inspire me and shape my work, to this day.

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'In this programme, I'm going to explore the roots of our fascination

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'with this intriguing world.'

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Is it real, is it fantasy?

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We can make it real, in the doll's house

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'I'll look at the history of dolls' houses,

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'from some of the earliest examples

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'to their modern incarnations.

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'I'll meet the craftspeople who create these perfect miniatures...'

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You open the door of your doll's house

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and everything is ordered, everything is beautiful.

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Nobody's trashed the living room, or used the last of the milk.

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'..and find the ardent collectors

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'willing to pay big money for tiny objects of desire.'

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My grandsons just shake their head at me.

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MUSIC: Sunny Goodge Street by Marianne Faithfull

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'I'm on my way to somewhere that means a lot to me.

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'This is Shaw Farm, in Wiltshire.

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'This is where my interest in dolls' houses really took hold.

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'I've been coming here since I was a little girl.

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'Shaw is home to Pat Cutforth.

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'She's been building dolls' houses for many years.

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'She passed on those skills to me when I was a child

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'and changed my life.'

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I found this little bed that I made...

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Oh, I don't know how old I was when I made this - maybe eight?

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That's great, cos it's strong and it's got a sort of...

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It's got a classic Lauren look about it, hasn't it?

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Even as crude as it is,

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it still somehow looks like...

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It does look like my work, it's true.

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That was sort of my first success on my own.

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I remember one of the first times I ever came

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and you got me to draw, um...

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..the piece of furniture that I wanted to make.

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And then, I was very surprised,

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because you suggested I cut it out on your band saw.

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I don't know, it was just... It was very nice to be trusted in that way.

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I think the fun was seeing you'd be able to create

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what you wanted to create, using slightly more sophisticated tools.

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MUSIC: Happly Place by The Jesus And Mary Chain

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'Pat is the one who first gave me confidence in my ideas

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'and the skills to realise them.

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'I've been coming here since I was seven years old.

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'Pat's workshop is a miniaturist's delight,

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'filled with everything you could need to build

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'the doll's house of your dreams.

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'A room full of workbenches and power tools isn't the first thing

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'that comes to mind when you think of dolls' houses...

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'..but this is where I found out that there are few limits

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'to what can be achieved with imagination.'

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I've just been looking. I know I've got some small scraps...

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The physical making of things...

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is of course, part of the fun of it

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and the creativity, but there's also

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just a creativity of looking at it

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and imagining what you might do.

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I just found it a very calming thing to work on -

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because you're allowing yourself to move out of the real world,

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into a space where you can think in a different way

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and you can create in a different way.

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'Pat built her own doll's house to fulfil a childhood dream...

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'..and this gave me the belief

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'that I, too, could design my own miniature worlds.'

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Mum says we can't do anything until our bedroom is all clean and tidy.

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But it is all clean and tidy.

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'When I begin a story, one of my first questions is,

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'"What sort of world do these characters live in?"'

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It's not a mess, Charlie.

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It's properly spread out -

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for playing!

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Ah, I knew it would be there.

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'I imagine Charlie and Lola living in this Scandinavian world.'

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Perfect.

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I became obsessed with Scandinavia as a child,

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because I loved Lundby dolls' houses.

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'These 1970s Swedish houses

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'had electric lights and modern interiors.'

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They were so clean and beautiful

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and lots of low hanging lights

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and lots of bright colours,

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lots of orange

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and bold, geometric patterns.

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In Charlie and Lola's kitchen,

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you can see the light hanging low over the table,

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you can see lots of white,

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lots of wood.

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'Quite often, if I get stuck doing a picture,

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'I'll go and rearrange the doll's house, instead.'

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A room, whether in a doll's house or in a picture book,

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can give you so many clues about a character

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and about the life they live.

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'Here's a poodle, who's gone to the psychiatrist's office.

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'The psychiatrist is very earnest and worthy,

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'which I suggest with this Hessian texture on the walls.

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'I wanted to show the wealth of this family

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'and to give the idea of a very splendid room,

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'so I played with the scale, just like in a doll's house.

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'These tiny little people

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'are dwarfed by these huge great doors.

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'The collage technique in those pictures is something I use a lot...

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'..because it means I can put off making a final decision.

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'I can keep moving the pieces around,

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'just as I rearrange the furniture in a doll's house.'

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LOLA HUMS

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ALARM CLOCK RINGS

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CHARLIE GASPS Lola, you're supposed to be tidying!

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CHARLIE HUFFS

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'When I was a little girl,

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'my mother would sometimes take us

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'to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.'

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You used to walk in these big doors

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and straight into...a sort of hall.

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There would be these beautiful dolls' houses

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and you'd sort of walk through them.

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As a child, I could think of nowhere I'd rather be.

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Because dolls' houses, for me, were just amazing things.

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Just looking in at these worlds...

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So I'd get quite sort of...

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heart pounding feelings,

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when I went...

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When I walked in and looked at them all.

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The Tate House, I probably liked the most -

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the way that each room has its own door,

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that you can open individually...

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and revealing one part of the house

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and then hiding it away again.

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'The Tate Baby House dates from 1760.

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'It was probably built for a rich Cambridgeshire family,

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'as a little replica of their own house.

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'That's why they were known not as "dolls' houses",

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'but as "baby houses" -

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'a miniature version of the real thing.

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'It was passed down through the family,

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'from mother to daughter,

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'until it was donated to the museum in 1929,

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'by Mrs Flora Tate.

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'The Tate Baby House is the star of the Small Stories exhibition

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'at the Museum of Childhood.

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'Narrowing the museum's collection of 100 dolls' houses

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'down to 12 for the show

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'was the job of curator, Alice Sage.'

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We wanted to choose houses

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that showed a range of different lifestyles from the past,

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from the incredible Tate Georgian mansion,

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through to a little terraced house,

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from around 1900.

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I find the Tate House really interesting,

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because it really feels like a doll's house -

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something you could actually get in your little hands

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and move things around.

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And the other thing that always makes a doll's house for me

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is the difference in scale.

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So, when you look in the bedroom,

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you've got this tiny lady upstairs,

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who couldn't possibly lift that jug -

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and yet, it doesn't matter.

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It just gives such a lovely atmosphere and I think that

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this is what attracted me when I was a child, to this house,

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because it feels like a doll's house,

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because of that reminding you, all the time.

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Although it's beautifully crafted

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and you've got the wonderful panelling and the chandelier

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and everything so beautifully made,

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but then, you have a giant teapot

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and a giant warming pan for the bed.

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What I love about it is that...

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it was in the same family for 120 years,

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so these things didn't all appear at once,

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all perfectly in scale with each other

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and go into the house and that was it,

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but they were accumulated, over years and years.

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You're making a collage, almost, of different memories,

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different associations -

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they might have been gifts from friends -

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and just because something doesn't quite fit,

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doesn't mean that it doesn't have a special place

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in this house that you're making.

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There's something so lovely about it evolving,

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like a real house evolves -

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and you see the personality.

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Yes, and that's exactly what I wanted to bring out in the exhibition

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with this house is, yes, it's a fine 18th-century baby house,

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but it's also a family heirloom

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and a significant object to the women who owned it and...

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..it had the tradition of being passed down

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to the eldest daughter of each generation.

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I can't help feeling that's a really lovely thing,

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because it means it's been loved

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and it's grown with the family and it's sort of evolved.

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'The exquisite detail in these dolls' houses

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'gives us many clues to how people once lived.

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'This detail also served a practical function.

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'A doll's house was often a way of instructing young women

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'in the art of running a home.'

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One of the earliest examples of a doll's house

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being used for educational purposes

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was Anna Kofelin's house.

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And she lived in Germany, in the early 1600s

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and she sold it explicitly as a learning tool

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for your daughters, or your maids.

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Bring them along, teach them

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what all the different things in the kitchen are for,

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how you use them, how you clean, how you cook...

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And this miniature house was her teaching tool.

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The house doesn't survive, but we have her adverts.

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She wrote, "So look you, then, at this baby house,

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"ye babes, inside and out.

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"Look at it and learn well ahead how you shall live, in days to come.

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"See how all is arranged in kitchen, parlour and bedchamber

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"and yet, is also well adorned.

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"See what great number of chattels a well-arrayed house does need."

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'A doll's house is a miniature version of reality...

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'..but a very peculiar version.

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'This is something they have in common with fairy tales.

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'So when I decided to retell the story of the Princess And The Pea,

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'I took my inspiration from a doll's house.'

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This is the Nuremberg House

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and it dates back from 1673

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and there's a...

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story, obviously, of the people who owned it...

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and who were meant to be living here.

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It belongs to an apothecary and so...

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everything in there is a clue to their wealth and what they do.

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But I suppose, for me,

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it's much more to do with the atmosphere -

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that it's generated by the use of the wood -

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everything seems to be made of wood.

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MUSIC: Svefn-G-Englar by Sigur Ros

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It so strongly gives you the sense of a German house...

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and a sort of fairy tale house.

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When I was doing Princess And The Pea,

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I was really trying to conjure up this sort of feeling, I think.

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And when I look at this bed upstairs

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and it's all on its layers

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and the mattresses are very, very high

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and the drapes containing the little bed,

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so it's almost like a room.

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It's very much like The Princess And The Pea's bed.

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'The Princess And The Pea

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'was a collaboration with photographer Polly Borland.

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'I used doll's house building techniques

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'to create the room sets, which Polly photographed.

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'The floor is made of cardboard,

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'scored to look like wood.

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'The panelling on the walls is made of cereal packets.

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'But some things had to be perfect.

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'The most significant item in the book

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'is the teacup that the prince drops

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'when he first catches sight of the beautiful princess.

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'I found my fairy tale teacup

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'in the workshop of miniaturist Karen Griffiths.

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'Karen trained as a ceramicist at St Martin's School of Art.

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'She makes gorgeous porcelain miniatures

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'for dolls' houses and collectors,

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'using exactly the same process as for full-sized pieces.'

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When I came into the business in 1981,

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everything was Victorian, maybe Edwardian, a bit of Georgian -

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and I blame Mrs Bridges.

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It's all that Upstairs Downstairs thing

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that was so popular at the time

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and we kind of developed this national nostalgia

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for things Victorian -

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a life that we saw as more simple

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and more ordered, you know?

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Forget child labour and rickets, we saw the cook and the nanny.

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On the one hand, it's the wish-fulfilment thing

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but on the other hand, it's the escaping thing.

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It's like, you have a rotten day at work,

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you come in, you open the door of your doll's house

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and everything is ordered, everything is beautiful.

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Cook's in the kitchen, making apple pies,

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the children are in the nursery

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and nobody's trashed the living room or used the last of the milk!

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That's so true!

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'Craftsmanship like this is expensive.'

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Most of it was gone, actually. You really had a huge run on it.

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I saw it sitting there earlier.

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'A complete dinner service by Karen costs several hundred pounds.

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'But there is no shortage of collectors

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'willing to save for such treasures.'

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If you've got tickets, can you come through this side, please?

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'I've come to the Kensington Doll's House Festival,

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'where Karen is one of over 175 different exhibitors.

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MUSIC: Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix) by Bjork

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'The festival has been going for 30 years.

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'It attracts over 5,000 collectors to the twice-yearly shows.'

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I love miniatures,

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I absolutely adore miniatures.

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'I often go, simply to look.

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'I find it so interesting to see what people create.

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'Whenever you think you've seen everything,

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'along comes another exhibitor,

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'making something you've never seen before...

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'..from a miniature guinea pig,

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'to a teeny weeny chemistry lab.'

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Ah, that's what I want. That little blue...

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OK, I'll get a little bag for you.

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Oh, lovely. Thank you.

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We've been making miniatures for about ten years.

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We make electric meters,

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car batteries, chargers...

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There's a dance set record player...

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About 250 items.

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It's a world where people can lose themselves

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in what is a wonderful hobby.

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'I've brought my goddaughter Delfina to the show

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'for the first time.'

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She's a very funny looking one, isn't she?

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'There's so much to see, it's such a spectacle -

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'and Delfina seems to be utterly enchanted.'

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-We could just stay here for hours.

-I know, couldn't you?

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I do, usually.

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So shall we go and look for a doll, then?

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They're sweet.

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-I like her, she looks...

-Yes.

-I like her shoes.

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Oh, yeah - look at them. They're beautiful.

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She's like...

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-Have you fallen in love with her?

-Yes, I have.

-OK.

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-Well, let's get that one.

-You sure?

-Yes.

-Thank you.

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OK, so we'd like this one, please.

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'You can spend a lot of money at the Doll's House Festival -

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'and it will all fit in the tiniest little bag.'

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It's just the workmanship in it.

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To me, it's just absolutely wonderful

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that somebody can actually do something like this.

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These bulbs are used in the aircraft industry

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and they will give you a life of around 10,000 hours.

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'But what is the enduring appeal

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'for collectors of dolls' houses and miniatures?

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'I'm going to ask Philippa Perry

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'for the psychotherapist's perspective on this.'

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So, Philippa - why do we need dolls' houses?

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If we have a doll's house,

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we can make that a sort of mirror for our internal life.

0:23:160:23:20

We have our internal life and...

0:23:200:23:22

Is it real, is it fantasy?

0:23:220:23:24

But we can make it real, in the doll's house.

0:23:240:23:27

So what would you say is the appeal of collecting?

0:23:270:23:30

It's because we get addicted to it.

0:23:300:23:33

When we, uh...

0:23:330:23:35

get that rush of satisfaction,

0:23:350:23:39

we get a hit from it.

0:23:390:23:42

Once you get a hit of something, you want to keep getting a hit,

0:23:420:23:45

so we become addicted.

0:23:450:23:46

I always think dolls' houses are a slightly different collection

0:23:470:23:51

than say...collecting beautiful vases, or something,

0:23:510:23:55

because you are creating a world and you're creating, therefore, a story.

0:23:550:24:00

And when you look at a doll's house,

0:24:000:24:02

you're seeing it all as one image, in a way,

0:24:020:24:05

and your eye naturally travels from room to room

0:24:050:24:09

and up the stairs

0:24:090:24:11

and you see somebody standing in a doorway...

0:24:110:24:13

Or even if it doesn't have any characters in it,

0:24:130:24:16

you're still seeing a little story.

0:24:160:24:19

And you don't have to be four years old to really enjoy doing that.

0:24:190:24:23

You can be 40 or 80 years old,

0:24:230:24:26

to still really enjoy...

0:24:260:24:29

this making of another world.

0:24:290:24:32

'I've been building my own doll's house world in Pat's workshop

0:24:350:24:39

'for 30 years, on and off.

0:24:390:24:41

'It'll always be a work in progress,

0:24:430:24:46

'but today, Delfina is going to be the first person

0:24:460:24:49

'to see it all set up.'

0:24:490:24:51

-Hello!

-Hi!

0:24:530:24:55

-Hello.

-Nice to see you.

0:24:550:24:57

-Yes, so this is my doll's house.

-Oh, my gosh!

0:24:590:25:02

Isn't that incredible?

0:25:030:25:05

It is. It's so cool.

0:25:050:25:08

-I like the kitchen.

-Why?

-I like the colour.

0:25:080:25:11

There are loads of pots and pans and things and the...

0:25:110:25:13

Yeah, all the little details.

0:25:130:25:15

Kitchens are always good though, in dolls' houses, don't you think?

0:25:150:25:18

-Because there is so much...

-And you can look at all the things in it.

0:25:180:25:20

-Yep. And you've got lots of everyday things, which I...

-And food.

0:25:200:25:24

-I love looking at food.

-I love looking at food. Look at those fish.

0:25:240:25:27

-Can I take it out?

-Yeah, they really are amazing.

0:25:270:25:29

Oh! They look real, actually.

0:25:310:25:33

But is this wine?

0:25:380:25:40

That is... They are some alcoholic beverages, there.

0:25:400:25:44

Oh, yeah.

0:25:440:25:46

This is almost finished, now.

0:25:460:25:48

-Almost finished? It looks finished.

-Well, it's not quite...

-This room?

0:25:480:25:52

That room needs doing.

0:25:520:25:54

What are you going to put in that room?

0:25:540:25:56

-Are you going to put another bed?

-I think that will be a bedroom.

0:25:560:25:59

You could put a parent's bedroom in there.

0:25:590:26:01

It could be, couldn't it? I know.

0:26:010:26:02

MUSIC: Dry The Rain by The Beta Band

0:26:020:26:05

The wallpaper is the same as the spare room in your house.

0:26:090:26:13

Yes, it's a miniature of my real house wallpaper.

0:26:130:26:17

Yeah? Did you shrink it?

0:26:170:26:20

I did shrink it.

0:26:200:26:21

I had a little piece of it,

0:26:210:26:23

left over from when the spare room was wallpapered

0:26:230:26:26

and then I reduced it down.

0:26:260:26:28

'For me, the doll's house remains

0:26:330:26:35

'somewhere in which to create and to experiment...

0:26:350:26:38

'..a space for contemplation and escape.

0:26:400:26:42

'When I step into the world of the miniature,

0:26:450:26:47

'I feel I have stepped outside myself...

0:26:470:26:51

'into a place that is the imagination, made real.

0:26:510:26:54

A doll's house is like no other collection, I think.

0:27:000:27:04

Because it's not about each individual thing,

0:27:040:27:09

it's about the picture you're making with all the little components.

0:27:090:27:13

And it's not about finishing it.

0:27:200:27:22

That's not really the pleasure with a doll's house -

0:27:220:27:25

it's not really about getting every single thing and going, "That's it."

0:27:250:27:29

It's a living thing.

0:27:290:27:31

And it might get handed down,

0:27:380:27:40

passed on to relatives, friends, strangers...

0:27:400:27:44

and they'll do something different with it

0:27:440:27:46

and they'll change the wallpaper

0:27:460:27:48

and they'll change the era and they'll change the dolls,

0:27:480:27:51

but it's still a doll's house that's had a life before

0:27:510:27:55

and it will have a life after you.

0:27:550:27:57

Lauren Child, author, illustrator and creator of Charlie and Lola, has a secret passion - dolls' houses. She has worked on her own dolls' house for the past 30 years and her lifelong obsession continues to inspire her ideas and shape her work. But why do these interior worlds have the power to cast a spell beyond childhood?

Lauren explores the history of dolls' houses from some of the earliest examples to their modern incarnations, speaks to craftspeople who create perfect miniatures and meets ardent collectors willing to pay big money for tiny objects of desire.