There is some degree of disorder and unpredictability in Christine Ferrara’s life, as one would expect of someone who holds down a full-time job as a communications professional and has three children, the youngest only four and a half years old.
But in the wee hours of the night and early morning, when the children are asleep, and at other times when her husband helps her get those rare moments of “alone” time that working mothers everywhere so want and need, this West Windsor mom’s nimble hands weave a spell of magic, as she collects, creates, and styles miniature houses and interiors.
These are not the usual renderings that immediately come to mind when one thinks of dollhouses — typically those intricate Victorians or the ornate Tudor style. She does do vintage creations and even special holiday interpretations but her specialty is creating houses that are highly stylized, sleek, and modernistic — think “Mad Men” meets the Lilliputians, that tiny race of island people encountered by Gulliver on his famous travels.
“It is a great thing to say I have a hobby; I have a creative outlet,” says Ferrara. “It is important to discover something that is not within your 9 to 5 framework and tap into something that you find inspirational and can share and have as a way to learn about others. I have connected with people all over the world through my hobby, and that is a very cool thing.”
Remarkably, in the three short years she has been at this hobby, Ferrara has garnered national, even international recognition, and drawn a faithful following that adores her talent for miniature modern design. She designs and creates homes, takes photos, and then blogs about her ideas and artistic process at Call of the Small, http://call-small.blogspot.com, which picked up a prestigious award last year.
“Each year About.com picks blogs in different categories to honor,” says Ferrara. “In 2010 they were picking five of what they thought were the best blogs out there in the dollhouse world, and I came in third in the category of blogs about dollhouses and miniatures. So that was a lot of fun and even more so because it was unexpected.”
Ferrara and her work have also been profiled in the New York Times in a feature article about the growth of interest in modern design in miniature.
“Out of the blue I got an E-mail from a reporter from the home section,” she says. “The reporter was exploring this mini phenomenon of modern design in the dollhouse world, so she approached me about being interviewed. At that time I was quite private about my hobby. Nobody knew I had a blog or that I was into dollhouses and enjoying creating these designs, so it was a real decision to — quote unquote — go public. The article came out in April, 2010, and I got a lot more traffic that way and even more followers. Press leads to even more press. There is a group on the Flickr photo site devoted to modern miniatures, and I am on there. It was nice to have this level of attention and exposure for something that is literally so small. And it’s also great to see other people profiled because I really love their work.”
Ferrara sources her dollhouse furniture from various places — overseas and eBay — and also makes some from repurposed materials. She also tries to buy as much locally as possible and favors the Paper Source and JaZams, both on Palmer Square in Princeton. She says her work is not about producing a product but producing a visual and writing about it and sharing it.
“I tell people that I design or style modern miniature interiors and then they want to know what that means. It’s important for me to share that part of what I do, so the photographs I take are set up in such a way that you are brought into the scene, and you are a part of it.”
Ferrara is inspired by her environment and so stays keenly aware of her surroundings and always open to new, creative input. “I might be inspired by a piece of furniture or color,” she says. “I might get a cool piece of furniture, and then I design around it. Or I see things other people have done, and I say that’s a great texture or line, and I can build my ideas from that.”
She says she also draws inspiration from history and loves to design pieces within the context of certain time periods. “I love the mid-century modern esthetic from the 1960s, what you would think of as the classic ’60s style. Ray and Charles Eames were so influential in the ’60s design, and they created so many iconic chairs, including plastic molded chairs that are still present today and so contemporary. That is inspiring to me.”
Ferrara wasn’t looking for a new hobby, and she fell into this one quite unintentionally. It was late 2008, and she was looking for a dollhouse for her daughter, then eight years old, in anticipation of the holidays.
“I came across this modern structure, a minimalist house, and I couldn’t believe it was a dollhouse,” she says. “It appealed to my adult sensibility but it also spoke to a childhood fascination I had with miniatures, and I figured there is something here for me. I told my husband about seeing this house, and he got me that house as a gift that year. That’s what kicked off my hobby. Finding this new hobby in my late 30s was completely unexpected and has brought me a lot of joy.”
Ferrara says she has not monetized her hobby in any way, and it is more a labor of love than it was ever about making a profit. She did do a collaboration with Ladies Home Journal for which she was paid. The assignment was to create, style, and photograph an interior of one of her own dollhouses for an article on
real-life clutter. She first had to create a cluttered version of the room and then do a neat and tidy version of the same room. “It was a job, a photography assignment,” she says. “I didn’t seek it out. They found me. But it was fun to do.”
When she is not making houses or blogging, Ferrara serves as head of public affairs for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
“It is a wonderful, special place, a full-time commitment,” she says, which is why she has to make a special effort to carve out free time for her hobby. Ferrara says she usually devotes time to her blogging very early in the morning so she can answer posts. Her other window of opportunity is when the kids are in bed at night.
“It helps to have a wonderful husband and children who are appreciative of what I am doing,” she says. “When you are doing something creative, you don’t think about anything but being in the moment. No one is asking you for something. You are doing something for yourself, not for anyone else. That in itself is very appealing, but I also enjoy working with my hands and eyes and seeing things differently. That makes me happy.”
Her husband, Steven Birnbaum, is director of sales at a software company. They have three children: Charlotte, a sixth-grader at Community Middle School; Caleb, a third-grader at Maurice Hawk, and Miles, four and a half, who is in nursery school in Princeton.
She says sometimes her daughter works together with her, and she will work out a theme on her own. “My daughter was never one to be into dolls so much, but she enjoys this,” says Ferrara. “She understands that the materials I work with are delicate, old, or pricey and she respects that.”
The pull of things very tiny has always been a force in Ferrara’s life, even as a child, when she was growing up in Brooklyn in a very traditional house, a white colonial with pink shutters. She recalls her fascination with her own dollhouse and her joy in furnishing it. “I was about eight when I got it,” she remembers. “I would keep miniature things in the display case. I loved anything tiny. I couldn’t believe anything could be so small and look so real. Even now, given the quality of the miniatures that I purchase, you can’t believe that they look the way they do.”
Ferrara’s father was a pediatrician who specialized in the care of newborns and premature infants. Her mother owned a language translation business. Ferrara was the youngest of five children and graduated from NYU in 1992 with a degree in English and art history.
After college, most of her professional career was focused in public relations with an arts component. She worked at the Guggenheim Museum and also for a consulting firm that worked with cultural institutions.
Despite her demanding schedule, Ferrara says she would love to continue creating her pieces of art and writing about them, posting a new blog at least once a week, though she admits that doesn’t always happen on schedule. She does hope that the growing interest in the world of modern miniatures will encourage artisans and toy companies to produce more quality modern miniatures outside the more mainstream styles.
“Maybe my blog will encourage more people to come to share their views and their creativity. Hopefully I am encouraging other people to share what they are doing in the same way.”