Hobbies: Welcome to the dollhouses
When you see Annette Potenza’s “dollhouses,” you might, like our photography team, call them “a miniature decorator’s playland” or something like that. Because that’s what they really are.
Potenza, who is my mother-in-law, concurs that she is obsessed with decorating. It’s just a fact. At this stage in her life, she’s just had to pare it down, literally, to a size and perspective she can deal with.
A dealer in Asian and decorative antiques in Buffalo for over three decades, Potenza had a shop on Elmwood for a time, and is a familiar figure at Kelly Schultz’s Antique World Premier Center. She first got into “the biz” when an aunt, also an antique collector, gave her a few pieces and suggested that it’d be a good career for her. It was and is. Though her activities have slowed down and she no longer has a shop, she still deals in Asian and Art Nouveau items.
But her true love is decorating. And it comes out in her current obsession with dollhouses.
Potenza’s childhood dollhouse was lost when she was around eight years old. She says, “It was left behind by accident when we moved.” Since then she harbored a longing to return to that tiny land, and around the mid-1990s, she purchased her first adult dollhouse.
“At first,” she recollects, “it just sat in a guest room. Then, at an antique show in Atlantic City, a woman was selling all her dollhouse furniture. She had pieces that had been made by artisans all over the world—I bought the lot for $500. That is what started me on the road to ‘miniaturism.’”
Potenza also learned from Jane and Bruce Clayton, of the eponymous toy shop. “Clayton’s was closing out that end of their business, and they had a lot of furniture. They helped me pick out some lovely things when I started decorating.”
Her tastes have remained high end; she only uses artisanal or hand-made furniture. “I appreciate the time and talent of people who make artisan furniture; I also know that I won’t see these unique pieces anywhere else,” she says. “Some mass-produced dollhouse furniture is beautiful, but I want my houses to be collectible. Children aren’t going to play with them; they’re for adult collectors. I give the same advice to collectors of full-sized antiques or those who are starting to do dollhouses: ‘buy the best you can afford.’”
Potenza also ingeniously creates some of her own decorative items. “In the first dollhouse I decorated, I just sort of put some furniture in,” she says. “I didn’t start doing wallpapering, and making things until around 2000.”
She now has three fully furnished miniature houses in her guest room. And although there are no actual “dolls,” the presence of occupants is felt when viewing the rooms, something that Potenza says is purposeful and a large part of the joy and motivation for her decorating.
“As I’m doing each house, I imagine the people who live there; these vignettes are like creating a scene,” she explains. “I think about the things they would do, what they need, what they do for a living, what they would do when they come into each room.
“Each room or theme is inspired by something I’ve seen, like a piece of furniture or a rug,” Potenza continues. “In the casual country/beach house, the bathroom started with a beautiful tile pattern from a wallpaper book. That set me on an aquatic or nautical theme. This kitchen is where everybody meets. It’s very casual. There’s even food—you can see that someone is a good cook, and people are about to come in and eat. There is a little girl’s room—its furniture reminds me of things from MacKenzie-Childs.”
She narrates rooms she designed with her own children in mind: “This one has a giraffe chair, in an overall African look, with Maxfield Parrish artworks on the walls; my daughter loves that. And I’ve done a modern room for my son.
“I just love to decorate,” she goes on. “And I can no longer move full-sized furniture around every day. Doing these small houses is very creative for me. It’s also good exercise for my hands and eyes; it keeps me young.
“My late friend Barbara, a co-owner of Setel’s wallpaper, would give me Scalamandre sample books.” If you haven’t heard of Scalamandre, as I hadn’t, this is the company’s self-description: “America’s manufacturer and importer of the world’s most beautiful fabrics, trimmings, wallcoverings, and carpets.”
So, continues my mother-in-law, “The books are perfect for my interests; they have beautifully made samples that I use to make shades, curtains, rugs, and flooring for my houses. I look through antique books and magazines for tiny picture of paintings, and I buy or make tiny frames.”
Bookmarks from the Darwin Martin House or cards with Roycroft patterns can be repurposed into wall tiles, floor runners, or other decorations.
The rooms are also filled with tiny accessories: lamps, cigarette box, valise, and books. She envisioned a decorative toothpick as a cane in a tiny umbrella stand. A jade animal pin does duty as a garden statue. She adapted beadwork from a vintage evening purse into a hassock.
Potenza retraces her journey. “When I moved into a modest-sized apartment, I couldn’t walk around without bumping into something. I couldn’t keep track of [all the full-sized furniture, objets d’art, etc.] that I owned; it was stored in other people’s houses and warehouses. I had a talk with myself and said, ‘That’s it, my focus is my dollhouses.’ I had several estate sales, and sold a good deal of my [regular-sized] collection.
“I’m still obsessed, so I think that dollhouses are the best remedy. I’ve reached the height with them, too. I have too many things in too many boxes, and can’t keep track of everything, but at least I know where [the boxes] are.
“I can’t buy any more, shouldn’t buy any more,” she adds. “I don’t have room in my house or in my dollhouses. I only buy what is especially unusual and finely made. I’m trying to use what I have, and give some to people who’ll use them. I then plan to create another house with what I’m saving. Also, the dollhouses are small enough to be packed up if I need to.”
The external structure of her houses is not as impoprtant to Potenza. “I don’t care as much about the outside of the house—I have learned that as long as the rooms are at least nine inches tall, they can accommodate larger pieces of dollhouse furniture.”
The furnished mini-neighborhood is in her den now, a room where her husband spends much of his time. I asked her how he feels about it. “He started out thinking it was a bit much, but now he’s accepted it, and even encourages me. He has learned a lot. When we are at a show, he’ll point out things that I might like.”
As for curbing her obsession, sticking to the plan of reining in those shopping impulses? “Of course I’m always looking,” she tells me, with brutal honestly. “If there were a show today, I’d be there instead of here.”
Jana Eisenberg is a frequent Spree contributor.