KR Reviews

On In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World by Simon Garfield

New York, NY: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2019. 336 pages. $25.00.

“It is the small we are inclined to be fond of,” wrote Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise on aesthetics. We feel a special tenderness toward “little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts.” Nearly every language uses diminutives (“little darling”) to express affection. Whereas great and terrible things elicit our admiration, our love is reserved for that which is small enough to domesticate. “We submit to what we admire,” Burke explained, “but we love what submits to us.”

To miniaturize is to control—to command the march of toy soldiers across the playroom carpet, to conduct one’s own mechanized railroad network, to perfect the plans for a full-sized building at 1:100 scale. Children get their first taste of authority from dolls; they decide their Barbies’ fates. “We may never have such dominion over the world again,” writes Simon Garfield, “unless we continue the play into adulthood.”

In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World, Garfield’s cheerful survey of the small-scale, introduces us to full-grown adults enthralled by pint-sized worlds. For most of Garfield’s subjects, miniatures are less a hobby than an obsession. There is the New York dental student who built a model of the Eiffel Tower from eleven thousand toothpicks, only to be outdone by a French family who constructed their own replica using half a million matchsticks. There is Rod Stewart (that Rod Stewart), whose Beverly Hills mansion boasts a model railway covering 1500 square feet. And there is the British “microminiaturist,” whose depictions—a Last Supper fitted inside the eye of a needle, a Mona Lisa painted with an eyelash used for a brush—can only be appreciated through a microscope.

What should we make of these apparently pointless endeavors? Visiting the world’s largest model railway—Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland, built at a cost of twenty million euro—Garfield wonders, “Had our own world reached its apotheosis, with nothing left to do but digest and duplicate it?” Few seem to share Garfield’s skepticism. Miniatur Wunderland has received more than a million visitors from Schleswig-Holstein alone. Belgium’s Mini-Europe, featuring baby Big Bens and Eiffel Towers (a “meaningless stamp collection,” Garfield calls it), receives 300,000 visitors a year.

Even the tackiest miniatures, Garfield reflects, provide childlike respite from life’s uncertainties. In their meticulous perfection, they offer us an “antidote to the vagaries of adult life.” Yet there is something decidedly un-childlike in the patience and precision that miniature-making entails. It takes serious self-discipline to, say, construct a 1:300 matchstick model of an aircraft carrier fitted with F-14 Tomcats. The slow, deliberate pace of modeling seems particularly out of step with the instant-gratification ethos of the internet age. But for miniaturists, satisfaction is found in the process, not the final product. “In the miniature world,” Garfield writes, completion “ushers in a terrible void and the admittance once again of unwelcome realities.”

In Miniature is a brisk tour through history’s most impressive attempts at downsizing. Some are breathtaking in their delicate luxury: Queen Mary’s dollhouse, designed in the 1920s by Sir Edwin Lutyens, features stamp-sized paintings by Paul Nash, a Cartier-made working longcase clock, and an abridged Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, written especially for the little library (Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw declined requests to contribute original works). Others are simply absurd: a Victorian flea circus in which the tiny acrobats walked a tightrope and danced a “Large Pantomime Ballet in Ladies Costume.” “The flea circus thrived at a time before irony,” Garfield explains, but “the familiar traits of miniaturization were all intact: a desire for mastery and control; a fixation on the seemingly impossible; the studied patience that brought forth astonishment.”

Each chapter its own mini-portrait, the book’s structure reflects the power of the miniature to clarify much larger concepts. “By being quantitatively diminished,” Lévi-Strauss observed, the scaled-down object appears “qualitatively simplified.” Looking down upon a city from the air—the blocks and buildings shrunk, as if shapes on a map—one seems to comprehend its geometric logic. The god’s eye view offers “an omniscient sense of measured order,” in Garfield’s words. Karen Blixen experienced this same revelation flying in a biplane over Kenya, the landscape miniaturized beneath her. She wrote in Out of Africa that every flight presented “a great new discovery. ‘I see:’ I have thought, ‘This was the idea. And now I understand everything.’” She felt she had the world in view.

Architectural models are the most familiar expression of the miniature’s elucidating quality; Garfield devotes a chapter to the late Zaha Hadid’s renderings in foam and chipboard. But he offers other, unexpected examples of how the miniature world illuminates aspects of our own. In the 1940s, America’s first female police captain, Frances Glessner Lee, built dollhouse models depicting scenes from unsolved murders. Each of her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” featured miniphernalia like a bar of soap in the bathroom, a coffee percolator in the kitchen—and a corpse, wearing slippers with real leather soles, bloodied on the bedroom floor. Rendering in scrupulous specificity all possible evidence, Lee (often called the “mother of forensics”) aimed to modernize homicide investigations. “By reducing an act to its key components, she enabled viewers to see what really mattered,” Garfield writes. “The closer one looks, the more one sees, the closer one looks.”

Garfield’s episodic approach to his topic is largely successful. His playful, sometimes belittling language (“Mini-Europe is what happens when a civic amusement is designed by a committee on which all the creative and sensible members have consistently called in sick”) is just right for a book that considers, among its subjects, miniature depictions of The Simpsons characters on acid tabs. Yet Garfield’s analysis could sometimes use scaling-up. He shows us all that miniatures reveal, but what do they obscure? In 1958, Jane Jacobs lamented that architects and city planners had become infatuated with scale models and bird’s-eye views—a “vicarious way to deal with reality,” in her words. Miniaturization conceals the decidedly messy nature of urban life, the complex social intricacies that make the city work. While the view from above offers the illusion of coherence, cities are only really understood at ground-level: “You’ve got to get out and walk,” Jacobs advised.

Miniatures have other, more sinister connotations. Garfield profiles avant-garde artists who use miniatures to depict hellish scenes in prisons and concentration camps. Rather than trivialize the atrocities they portray, miniatures intensify their horror. “By reducing the ordeal to the size of a toy . . . the banality of evil [would be] scrutinized in a manner that made it both digestible and incomprehensible,” Garfield writes. He might also have considered how the miniaturist’s obsession is, in pop culture, often a sign of something ominous. Think of the model hedge maze in The Shining, Frank Underwood’s battlefield models in House of Cards, Amma’s creepy dollhouse in Sharp Objects. The sociopath who plays with toys casts our desire to dominate over tiny worlds as menacing, unfeeling. The view from the airplane confers omniscience but also indifference: “Below are men—protozoa on a microscope slide,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed from his cockpit.

“How much better is this amiable miniature than the Real Thing!” H.G. Wells celebrated toy soldiers in the 1913 book Little Wars, a guide to his favorite pastime. Within a year, the Great War had begun. On the streets of central London, Garfield writes, the fronts of bombed-out homes “resembled nothing so much as doll’s houses in open play.” The whole world, in a nutshell.