This Mini Venetian Palazzo Is the Dollhouse of Our Dreams

·4-min read
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

Like many people stuck at home over the past year, arts patron, interior designer, and collector Joanna Fisher found herself imagining what her dream house might look like. She found a preexisting building. She shopped for the best vintage furniture to fill its interiors. She commissioned paintings and sculptures from her favorite artists. But after Fisher’s project was complete, she couldn’t exactly move in. You see, Fisher’s fantasy residence is a dollhouse.

Fortunately, we can visit the petite residence, thanks to a new show at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), the Fisher Dollhouse: A Venetian Palazzo in Miniature, now on view through September 26.

Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

Fisher didn’t plan to spend the pandemic meticulously realizing a tiny home. Based in New York, she was hunkering down in Chappaqua with her 99-year-old mother, husband, and two children (along with one of their fiancés). Keen on an activity that would keep her mind and hands busy, she purchased a vintage dollhouse, made by the British set designer Holly Jo Beck, from a UK auction site on a whim.

“It was originally purely for myself. I had no intention of it becoming a museum piece,” explains Fisher. “I needed my own private space where I could go to be alone. So I created this extra house where there was nobody in it but me.”

Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

Fisher’s interest in miniature residences wasn’t without precedent. Growing up, her mother’s best friend, Mimi Livingston, had a dining room whose walls held 12 built-in dioramas in different styles and genres. The young Fisher would visit Livingston’s setup every day. Eventually, she purchased her own dollhouse and later, one for her daughter. Her obsession persists.

When it came to her lockdown project, Fisher took inspiration from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a work given to the British Royal Family in 1924, which is housed at Windsor Castle (Fisher once partook in a private tour), as well as the Stettheimer Dollhouse (created between 1916 and 1935), part of the permanent collection at the Museum of the City of New York. Since the vintage house she purchased had an Italian feel to it, she also looked to the Palazzo Gritti and Peggy Guggenheim’s home in Venice, as well as Julian Schnabel’s pink Palazzo Chupi apartment building in New York’s West Village for aesthetic cues.

Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

Furnishing the house, which measures just 54 inches tall and 34 inches wide, required a deep dive down the rabbit hole of miniaturists. “It’s a very serious business, especially in Europe,” Fisher says. “I learned as I went, and chose the pieces by my eye. Once you enter that world, people start contacting you. I met so many people all over the world.”

She purchased some antique pieces that were originally created for Queen Mary’s dollhouse from a collector, and vintage pieces from a range of 20th-century makers. In some cases, she commissioned works from contemporary artists, like the Murano-style glass chandelier created by the Madrid-based Mario Ramos and Mariana Grande. There are tiny tools, a watering can, and an espresso machine, among other designs, from the Georgian metal worker Fred Cobbs; a dog bed by the jeweler Laura Lobdell; and a painted bombe chest and Julius Caesar bust by the Barcelona-based David Castillo, among the house’s many delights. Fisher also designed her own diminutive needlepoint rugs.

Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

In terms of the art, Fisher approached people who were friends and whose pieces she already owned, extending them a carte blanche to envision something for the house’s walls. Tatyana Murray and Rachel Lee Hovnanian shrunk their real life works, Aquatic Dream and Body Armor, respectively. Darren Waterston painted a landscape, Hunt Slonem made a smaller-scale version of his signature bunny motif, and Peter Gerakaris even crafted a tiny brush, the better to realize a neo-Byzantine icon. Designer Antonio Pio Saracino made a classic portrait of Fisher and set it in a tiny gilt frame.

Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC
Photo credit: Jenna Bascom Photography LLC

The end result is a dream house that, while not livable for the average person, required just as much time—and money—as realizing a human-scale production.

“I have been a designer for 40 years, so I’ve done a lot of big homes. Doing this in miniature ended up being more expensive. It’s unbelievable,” says Fisher. “Those little furnishings can cost more than regular size ones. But it was worth it. It’s a little haven where I can go to retreat from the world.”

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