The artists, collectors, and escapists of the miniatures world have a home in Las Vegas
Paris Renfroe leans over a worktable in his garage shop. An order just came in for an oval burlwood table with a pedestal base. The design is his own — sleek and warm and timeless. When finished, it will have the glow of something well crafted, with the artist’s touch visible in the hand-rubbed finish, the hand-sanded edge. It will take him about 20 minutes to build. The table will measure 2 1/2 inches high, which in 1:12 scale is equal to 30 inches.
Renfroe himself has never seen much distinction between the world of miniatures and the full-sized world, whose importance feels less and less firm the more time one spends immersed in other scales. “I don’t look at my miniatures as miniatures. I look at them as if I’m building full-sized furniture. The only difference is, I don’t make everything function,” Renfroe says. Miniature hinges, for example, tend to break. “You’ve got to realize the force of a full-sized person in 1-inch scale. For me, at 6 foot 2 inches, I’m 72 feet tall. I’m a giant. Can you imagine a giant opening a kitchen cabinet? He’s going to rip it off.”
Renfroe tends to play with scale like this as he’s speaking, zooming in and out to suit the needs of his current analogy. The images he takes of his miniatures — interiors that looked pulled out of design magazines — read as full-sized until Renfroe’s giant hand comes into the frame.
This emanating glow of reality, this refusal to see his miniatures as any less significant because of their size, is what makes him so good at what he does. After a decade in the business, he can calculate scale in his head, distinguish at first glance an amateur from an expert, and render detail with the finesse of a craftsman. Sometimes this means using the same material, like the burlwood veneer he will glue onto the plastic base of this table, but sometimes it means changing material to better convince the eye. A glass tabletop looks more lifelike in miniature if made using a thin sheet of acrylic.
His shop is set up with the basic tools needed for furniture making, as well as drawers containing thin scraps of wood and plastic and images cut from magazines that he will frame to make tiny art — nothing is too small to be useful. On the table sit two works in progress, a house modeled after one in the movie Ex Machina, complete with a stone fireplace and working electric lights made from seed pods, and a display for model cars with a wall of 3-D-printed guns for a client in Abu Dhabi. Renfroe chooses his jobs carefully, preferring clients who love his work and want to collaborate on something original, instead of replicating their own home or one they’ve seen. “It doesn’t matter what the scale is, but we’re still discussing design, how things should function, how many rooms, where it’s going to be displayed. So, it really feels like something that I’ve always done, which is just had a passion for design,” he says.
Renfroe moved to Las Vegas in 2011, a time when dollhouse culture was diminishing, and the internet had not yet created a resurgence in the love of tiny things. Dollhouses were first brought to the United States by English colonists, who wanted to carry a small representation of their past with them. “They hired the same craftsmen who built their homes to make miniatures so that they would have this as a keepsake or maybe even as an architectural model to maybe build a new one,” Renfroe says. Through industrialization, dollhouses became toys, and a consumer culture sprung up around them. Wholesale shows, where owners of dollhouse, miniature, and hobby shops bought a year’s worth of inventory to sell at their stores, became industry standard. The Cottage Industry Miniaturists Trade Association (CIMTA) in Las Vegas ran 1979-2019. But the prevalence of brick-and-mortar shops and the popularity of dollhouse collecting had long been in decline. “I think what happened is, things died off in the ’80s because a lot of the people who had those collections or that had the deep pockets were just getting old and they were dying,” Renfroe says.
When CIMTA shut down, Renfroe and two other locals from the miniatures world, Cindy Gonzales and Lisa Hicks, started a new show. They took a decidedly modern approach to the first International Market of Miniature Artisans, or IMoMA, which took place in 2020. “We didn’t want anything with dollhouse in it because, although you can use miniatures in a dollhouse, we didn’t want to be focused on that, because there’s so many other different genres and niches within miniatures as a whole,” Renfroe says.
These niches have only multiplied since 2020 because of COVID-induced quarantine, when confinement caused many artists to begin working in miniature and many people to seek sources of entertainment and levity on the internet. At this year’s IMoMA, “minfluencers” are coming in from around the country to meet and greet fans. One such minfluencer is Tonya Ruiz, whose Instagram account exploded in 2020, when she began a series of quarantine Barbies.
“One had insomnia, one was baking bread, one started a new hobby — you know, all the things we were all doing — overeating junk food, binge-watching TV,” Ruiz says. While some people in her community on #dollstagram put their dolls in fantasy worlds like midcentury living rooms, Ruiz prefers to create scenes of her daily life. “Mine is like a reality Barbie, my life in miniature,” she says. Indeed, people seem especially interested in the most everyday objects. Her most viewed post last year was a miniature ice tray.
Ruiz is not sure why miniatures are so popular. “It is a pop phenomenon on social media,” she says. “It is so popular that a lot of toy companies are even making miniatures for adults to buy.” Other companies have caught on, too. Ruiz was recently commissioned to make a laundry room scene for Clorox. Ruiz doesn’t make her own objects to create her worlds, but sources them from Etsy and eBay in 1:6 scale, or Barbie scale. “I am not a crafter, I am a collector,” she says.
Typical miniature shows only allow vendors working in 1:12 and 1:24 scale, the typical scales of dollhouses. “But the artisans that we want to start inviting aren’t making miniatures for dollhouses. That’s the difference,” Renfroe says. “There’s a lot of really cool stuff out there that is just considered art, and that’s what we want to focus on.”
A couple of years ago, Jordan Affonso, another of this year’s minfluencers, had an idea for a project called The Tiny Art Experiment. He invited miniatures artists from around the world to contribute a piece to a larger diorama. “So, I’m going to be bringing not only my own stuff, but also the results of that experiment, to Las Vegas to put on display. It’s about 14 miniature buildings that are Star Wars themed, with detail and accessories and vehicles and little action figures and characters and aliens that were all made by different artists from around the world,” Affonso says.
The line between art and toy, display piece and interactive object, is becoming trickier to distinguish in the world of miniatures, which people reach from seemingly every possible angle.
Las Vegas-born artist Mary Sabo, like many, began working in miniature during quarantine. She says, “I think people feel like they have so little agency and control over the world around them, but if you have this little tiny world of your own, it’s comforting, maybe.” Her work, which is sometimes displayed with a magnifying glass next to it to encourage a closer look, focuses on the landscape and the interior. “It all has a surrealist kind of twinge to it. Stuff that maybe I wish existed, fantasy worlds,” Sabo says.
This contradiction between the real and surreal may be one of the reasons why people are so enamored of miniature objects. Affonso says, “There’s a surrealistic quality, but at the same time, you know the object in front of you is real, so it’s almost like, How is this real? It’s so small but it’s the real thing, but it isn’t, but it is. It’s sort of a layering of surprise and an endearing quality.”
There’s also an element of nostalgia. Jessica Oreck, who runs the Office of Collecting and Design at The Historic Commercial Center District, enjoys watching peoples’ reactions to the objects in her museum. “It is devoted to the diminutive and the discarded,” Oreck says. “It is essentially an elaborate expression of leftover fragments from our collective memories.”
Visitors are encouraged to interact with Oreck’s miniatures. “It isn’t about the monetary value of an object; it’s about the value of an object as a token of memory for each visitor. And that feels too personal and too delicate to put behind glass. It has to be something you hold in the palm of your hand,” Oreck says. “Each of these pieces of trash/treasure hold what I call a ‘residue of attention.’ All the things they’ve witnessed, the love and use they’ve been afforded, people get to run their fingers through that when they visit. To me, it feels a little like magic.”
That magic is magnetic — so much so that even the miniatures we see in little squares through the windows of our devices encourage us to lean in and try, at least, to touch. ✦
The International Market of Miniature Artisans is scheduled Feb. 22-26 at the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino. It is open to the public Saturday and Sunday, and tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for kids. For more information, visit imomalv.com