All The Small Things: What can the creative industry learn from those working in miniature?
From miniature buildings, tiny food stuffs and scaled-down interiors, we chat to the makers of miniatures to find out what motivates them and the big lessons we can learn from such a small-scale craft.
Miniature art has always been a charming, seemingly ever-lasting feature in the creative world; think dolls houses, train models, ornate snuff boxes and Bekonscot miniature village. It’s a craft with a long, detailed history. But, while widely loved, miniature art can often be reduced to the creative realm of quaint or cute.
Over the summer here at It’s Nice That, we found ourselves seeing something of a miniature ‘resurgence’. Our Instagram explore pages were flooded with more and more miniature pages, the campaigns being sent our way saw them in abundance and, to top it off, the long-loved Guardian Experience segment featured Nora Chavez, a miniature maker of film and TV sets.
We know why we, and many others, love miniatures; they’re endearing, show great skill and often relate back to some deeply embedded nostalgia. But why do people love making them? And what’s the dedication needed for such a specific niche? To answer these questions, we speak to some of our favourite miniature makers out there, looking to uncover what’s driven them to dedicate so many hours of their lives to crafting all-things small, and what creatives of all disciplines could learn from such a meticulous, intricate art.
For many finishing up at university, the last thing you may choose to unwind is a pastime directly related to your degree. English literature graduates often find themselves unable to pick up a book, and graphic design students may end up feeling queasy at the sight of Photoshop. This wasn’t the case, however, for miniature building maker Charles Young.
It was after graduating from a masters in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh in 2014 that Charles found himself looking for a project that would allow him to make something every day. He soon realised that the small models and structures which had been an integral part of his architectural education – often realised in the malleable, “quick-to-use” material of paper – would be the perfect thing to test himself with. Soon, Charles’ project had found a name, Paperholm, and he began creating a whole city’s worth of paper structures. After three years, he had made over 1,000 white paper buildings and, in 2017, the project saw a natural conclusion. But, not one for stalling, Charles decided that it was time to add a whole new dimension: colour.
“I don’t think there’s been a time when I’ve abandoned one of these works and started again, because it doesn’t matter if it’s not the best thing I’ve ever made, that’s not what it’s for.”Charles Young
During the pandemic, Charles had stumbled across the Japanese painter Wada Sanzo’s book Dictionary of Colour Combinations (c.1930), an in depth foray into the most satisfying colour palettes out there. Initially, Charles had no intention of using it in a project, but with such a massive list of possible combinations at hand, Charles could enter each building with as much vigour as before. And, it’s not only colour that has developed Charles’ work, but the complexity and diversity of the pieces, too. A recent favourite of Charles’ is an animated pastel digger, featuring a triple joint arm: “The moving parts on the joints are only a couple of millimetres across, so it was a delicate job to make,” he expands.
While Charles’ paper project may have been inspired by his degree, it’s the freedom of doing things under his own guise that has really kept him going. “I think the work you’re making for yourself can be the most free and uninhibited,” he details. What’s more, the freedom of independent creation has also allowed him to persist with things that may not be going ‘perfectly’. “Sometimes one of these pieces isn’t quite as successful as you might have hoped. I still publish these, as it’s good to acknowledge that not all of your work can be great all of the time,” Charles says. “I don’t think there’s been a time when I’ve abandoned one of these works and started again, because it doesn’t matter if it’s not the best thing I’ve ever made, that’s not what it’s for.”
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Charles Young: Four-colour Studies (Copyright © Charles Young, 2020-2021)
On the other hand, Mahnaz Miryani uses a somewhat differing technique in her miniature works. Creating items from all of the food groups and an array of cuisines, Mahnaz’s tiny works are a full on feast; to say that her pieces look good enough to eat may be incredibly cliché, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Ripe tomatoes sit on a chopping board, a full bag of crisps are ready to be demolished in one sitting and the various components of an apple pie lie sweetly amid baking. Seeing the attention to detail throughout Mahnaz’s work, it’s a surprise to hear her miniature project exists simply as a “hobby”. What’s more, it’s a hobby that exists alongside a very busy schedule. Day to day, Mahnaz practises as a metallurgy engineer while also studying for a degree in psychology in her home city of Tehran.
As her profession would suggest, Mahnaz tells us that she’s always been obsessed with work and projects “full of detail”. It was only in 2018, however, that Mahnaz one day stumbled across the world of miniatures on Instagram, instantly falling for the hyper realistic food pieces. That same day, she took herself to the art supplies store, bought all the materials she needed and started straight away.
For Mahnaz, the part of the process that always keeps her coming back is the shading. Being intent on making her pieces look as realistic as possible, she can often be found spending hours with soft pastels in all shades of brown making a cake look fresh from the oven. And of course, as is to be expected, making such gourmet works comes naturally alongside a love of food. To date, one of Mahnaz’s favourite works is her fried chicken board. “I love this food in real life,” she laughs.
Mahnaz hasn’t only gained a hobby that keeps herself occupied for hours on end, but a whole community, too. Having amassed quite the following on her Instagram under the moniker Cute Moon (the English translation of her name), Mahnaz puts her massive learning curve down to interacting with miniaturists all over the world through the app. Predictably, the community is also one full of what Mahnaz describes as “positive energy”. This is very much reflected throughout her wonderfully cyclical process. “The energy and love that I spend during the process of making miniatures will always come back to me.”
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Mahnaz Miryani/CuteMoon: Fried Chicken (Copyright © Mahnaz Miryani/CuteMoon, 2022)
Meanwhile, Laura Woodroffe is someone who loves miniature art for all its many facets – one being its very ancient origins. “Placing meaning in tiny objects is a very human thing,” she begins, “and something that we have done for thousands of years in the form of amulets, charms or trinkets.” But, on top of this, Laura also sees it as something incredibly “nostalgic” and a little “ridiculous” at times; two facts that come together in making it an incredibly accessible art form, too.
An art director based in South East London, for the past nine years Laura has designed sets for large-scale live events. Despite the magnitude of some of her projects, however, her favourite part of the process has always been the model making. “The organised perfectionist in me loves the task of taking a CAD drawing and replicating it accurately in 3D with glue and card, but the detailed hand-painted textures and finishes satisfy my artistic side,” she says. It was this fact – alongside her childhood obsession with Sylvanian families, fairy houses and making models of her dream home from foam board – that compelled her to start making and selling miniatures professionally in 2019.
“Although there is a tendency for miniature art to be thought of as twee – or at least fall under the umbrella of craft rather than art – it has such a rich history behind it.”Laura Woodroffe
For the large part, Laura’s mini makes are commissions for individuals, usually taking the form of replicas of people’s everyday spaces. Essentially, Laura creates a “portrait” of a person through the objects and knick knacks that surround them everyday. “Having someone describe to you all the things that make a person who they are is really special, and it’s interesting to see the things they focus on. It’s often not their careers or expensive possessions but their nicknames, eating habits, favourite jumper or family jokes,” Laura details. “It’s then these tiny mundane objects that take on a real meaning for the person.” Her scenes range from teenage bedrooms, backstage dressing rooms and 1970s corner shop interiors, all realised with such detail that a clever camera angle could have you believing they were the true-to-scale rooms.
Through building such close relationships, and seeing the effect miniature art can have on individuals, Laura has seen just how pertinent her chosen niche can be. “Although there is a tendency for miniature art to be thought of as twee – or at least fall under the umbrella of craft rather than art – it has such a rich history behind it,” Laura muses. “It’s so good to see contemporary miniature artists coming through and creating a real resurgence.”
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Laura Makes Miniatures: Iso’s Fridge (Copyright © Laura Woodroffe 2021)
Then there’s Kath Holden. Rather than thinking about what she has made in miniature, it would perhaps be easier to think about what she hasn’t made. One half of the prolific Delph Miniatures based in Bradford, we first came across the work of Kath and her mother, Margaret, around four years ago in the short film directed by Ellen Evans, Life in Miniature. Having been professionally mini-making for over 30 years, Kath has made things as specific as a mortuary and attended a whole host of miniature shows across the UK. Dedication is something that seemingly comes naturally. In this sense, it would be more accurate to describe Delph Miniatures as a lifestyle, rather than a profession.
Kath’s interest in miniatures began after two encounters in her childhood. The first was during a family outing to a miniatures show in North Yorkshire, and the second was the moment she laid eyes on a one-up-one-down dolls house shop. Instantly, she was “transfixed”. Flogging her belongings to buy the £75 shop, Kath soon realised it needed to be filled, and she and her mother began making dolls, fruit and furniture. Spiralling from a hobby into something Kath and her mum were spending hours on, they soon began selling at fairs. Eventually – despite being a “straight A student” – Kath decided to listen to her instincts, evaded university, and fully threw herself to the job she had spent years crafting.
“We’ve always tried to keep up with technology – people are always asking for the latest style.”Kath Holden
Delph Miniatures’ clients now span far and wide, with commissions from major men’s magazines and work featured in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale. But for Kath, the most exciting part of her career still remains the physical act of making miniatures. Referencing some recent favourite projects, she highlights a lit bakers oven – made alongside her son – a working projector and a mobile multi-gym. The latter being so impressive it was bought by a competition judge.
By setting a wide remit at Delph Miniatures and dedicating themselves to always “innovating”, Kath and her mother make anything and everything that a customer may ask for. “We’ve always tried to keep up with technology,” Kath details, “people are always asking for the latest style.” This means avoiding traditional dolls houses and ornate works and, instead, exploring new territories. Together, they’ve seen TV’s go from “big black blocks” to flat screens, and cash tills from hulking machines to iPads. It’s this “challenge” of keeping on their toes and responding to the unpredictability of technology that keeps Kath coming back. Truly, no day is ever the same.
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Delph Miniatures: HD Pink (Copyright © Delph Miniatures 2022)
There are many lessons Kath has learned in her time as a maker of all-things small. Primarily, it’s the importance of “self belief”, she says. Early in her creative journey, many thought it impossible to make a living out of miniature making, but a heavy dose of conviction led her through. “If I didn’t believe in myself, and I didn’t have a family who believed in me, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Now, Kath has been at the helm of one of the UK’s most prolific miniature production lines for over three decades, and Delph Miniatures shows no signs of stopping.
So, while small-scale art is often assigned the artistic place of charming, cutesy and, on the whole, a little bit old-fashioned, our conversations with a range of makers proves the land of miniatures has so much more on offer. Whether it’s a project that instigates a whole new creative vision, a means of making close relationships with strangers, or a successful life-long career, it seems the creative industry at large could learn a lot in the ethos of miniature makers. Who knows, maybe it’s time to focus on the smaller things in life.
Charles Young: Assembly (Copyright © Charles Young, 2019)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.