Carpet design

How miniaturists make tiny design dreams come true

Like so many city tenants, Artist Wei Xu missed the plain walls she was unable to paint in her Toronto apartment. She dreamed of millennial pink combined with emerald green velvet and having enough space for a chic sofa. Its layout did not allow the space to be modified, and its dimensions were just as restrictive.

In a city where the average semi-detached costs over a million, buying a property was out of the question. But Xu realized that she could still fulfill her design dreams. In 2017, she started building her own miniature house. She bought a little house-shaped wooden cubbyhole at the dollar store and spent hours hand-painting matboard to make her back wall look like wallpaper. Then came the lighting – a bright LED with a button battery – and the floors, made from Popsicle sticks that she dyed herself. Ten days later, she was immersed in the details, creating tiny indoor plant figurines and macrame wall hangings. Her finishing touch was a polymer clay chair, complete with a cross-stitch cushion the size of a postage stamp.

The unveiling was a hit on social media, especially among followers related to Xu’s spatial frustrations. (She says her following grew exponentially when she started making mini houseplants.) “It’s meant to teleport you into space and feel its vibrations, because not everyone has not the space or circumstances to create her own irl bohemian reading space,” Xu wrote when she revealed the miniature bedroom on Instagram. “I definitely don’t have the right space to grow lush plants.”

For those who do not have the assets to ensure life-size splendour, miniatures satisfy an aesthetic desire. In the age of Instagram, the miniaturists have developed their own subculture. Ardent creators create signature styles for fans to admire and for more serious collectors to buy. Other fans simply enjoy scrolling through countless pages of miniatures, enjoying the dopamine-inducing novelty of everyday places and things rendered in 1:12 scale.

“It’s a perfect little world that you have complete control over.”

The Daily Mini Instagram page shares thumbnails from around the world with its audience of 228,000 followers, gushing with comments like “resurrect me”. That eulogy was for Kristine Hanna, an Ottawa miniaturist who built a printer with a tiny slice of paper sliding off the platen. Canadian company Much Love, Harry & Co. focuses on treats, selling near-nanoscopic charcuterie boards to collectors. They recently added caviar, made from clay, to the menu. The Italian miniaturist Katia Corsaro specializes in fancy cakes, adorned with icing roses, offered whole or sliced. And Japanese artist Miyuki Kobayashi handcrafts miniature aquariums, with tiny fish suspended as if swimming.

The phenomenon has even landed its own reality competition show, CBC’s Best in miniature. A contestant named Kat explained the miniatures as “something that takes me to another world and allows me to afford things that in real life I can’t afford now”. Among Kat’s miniature creations was a bar cart carrying bottles of champagne. One of his competitors, Phillip, pulled out a small Eames chair.

Building intricate pieces by hand allows Xu to love a living space while reconsidering what makes a home. “Creating your own miniature world is a fun and healthy form of escape for many people. You can create this perfect little world that you have complete control over, which may not be the case for other elements of your life,” she says.As more and more Canadians come to terms with the impossibility of homeownership, miniatures keep the dream of contentment alive, tiny.

What started as a craft experience has become a full-time activity for Xu. In 2019, she quit her marketing job to pursue a career in miniatures, selling her designs through an online store. To make them, Xu works hard in his small home studio, storing the equipment in a closet when not in use to save valuable space.

Xu describes her process as meditative. During the holidays, she made Christmas trees, with hand painted gifts and ornamentsments, which took about a week. She has also created fully functional miniature credenzas, with shelves and drawers inside; a desk with books, a globe and a drawer containing a calculator; and bedroom scenes with a pair of slippers on the rug.

Last February, Xu reproduced a millennial favorite light green kitchen cart full of cereal boxes and pantry items, and even a wooden spoon and whisk. His latest obsession: miniature room divisioners. “These really change the mood,” wrote Xu on Instagram, his thumb depicted arranging a mid-century modern armchair between a snake plant and a fiddle leaf fig. (The snake plant is just over an inch tall and has a monstera about two inches tall.)

Most young people struggle to expand their living space. But in miniature culture, the goal is to shrink. “Making smaller and smaller details is a challenge. You keep pushing,” Xu says. In his micro but wondrous world, alongside a mottled terrazzo table, an impressive art collection, and an elegant vase of greenery, Xu can have that chic couch after all.

This article appears in print in the September 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine hereor buy the issue online here.