Building scale models of a beloved home that can fit on a tabletop has literally become a cottage industry.
Veteran marketing executive Lisa Macpherson was thrilled two years ago, when she and her boyfriend Jim decided to buy their first house together, in Virginia. The only sacrifice: He would no longer live full-time in his house in Chicago, a passion project on which he’d collaborated closely with an architect. The solution, Macpherson reasoned, was for him to bring that house to Virginia with him—at least a scale model of it. Macpherson found a U.K.-based model maker, Chisel & Mouse, to tackle the project. She sent across blueprints, satellite images, photographs, and other details about Jim’s home, and connected the firm with his architect in case of questions.
“For someone in love with their home, seeing it reproduced at scale, with every detail perfect—it would be a knockout gift,” Macpherson explains via telephone from Virginia. “It was the perfect intersection of where we were in our relationship and his passion for that house.”
Sure enough, a few months later, an enormous wooden crate arrived in Virginia. At its center, painstakingly packed, was a 14-inch-wide plaster replica of Jim’s home in Illinois. The maquette perfectly mirrored every exterior detail; elements of the interior were visible, too. Through one window, Macpherson could see the fireplace; another provided a view of Jim’s platform bed. When Macpherson presented it to him at Christmas, Jim was speechless.
“Even a couple of years later, it’s still a big darn deal,” she says with pride. “It’s on a glass cocktail table here in Virginia—it’s the centerpiece of the room.”
Custom miniatures are increasingly the focus of Chisel & Mouse, which Robert Paisley runs with his brother, Gavin. The duo, yearning for a more fulfilling career after working in software sales and banking, turned to model making seven years ago.
“We’re both passionate about architecture,” Robert explains from their studio just outside Brighton, England. “And Gavin’s pride and joy is a Millennium Falcon in Lego, and he loves anything Airfix.”
The Paisleys combined these interests by buying an early Makerbot 3D printer with which they developed molds of such noteworthy buildings in the U.K. as the Tate Modern and the Battersea Power Station. The pair then hand-poured plaster into those molds before custom-finishing each piece. The results were an instant hit with the likes of interior design guru Sheridan Coakley of furniture design company SCP; the range of works now includes everything from the Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, Calif., to a Regency townhouse in Bath, England, and aerial views, incuding cityscapes of London, Chicago, and other places, that can be hung like paintings.
Soon after launching the firm, the Paisleys began receiving enquiries such as the one from Macpherson: Could Chisel & Mouse apply its model-making know-how on a bespoke basis? In response, the brothers created a custom division that produces made-to-order maquettes such as that of Jim’s house in Chicago. Bespoke models take around 12 weeks and cost from 1,500 pounds ($2,117) to 5,000 pounds; tbespoke projects now make up about 40 percent of their business.
“We’ve always been approached by people who have buildings that are fabulous, and it’s an incredibly joyous experience when they get to open the finished product,” Paisley says. “Everybody has been over the moon.”
Marking an Occasion
The impetus for most commissions is usually a renovation or a sale, explains Robert Paisley. One father received a scale model of the home he had renovated for decades as a 70th birthday gift from his children, while a trio of daughters in Ireland commissioned Chisel & Mouse for more poignant reasons: “They were moving their father into a home after their mother had died, so they clubbed together to have a commission done of their family home. They wanted one piece for each of them and one for their dad to take with him.”
Paisley has also worked with the Perez Art Museum in Miami, producing 50 miniatures as thank-you gifts for major donors, as well as several condo developments whose off-plan buyers received a maquette of the future building as a closing gift.
Chisel & Mouse isn’t alone. A cottage industry of architectural model-makers has arisen in the U.K. to offer this bespoke service, with Mulvany & Rogers at the higher end.
“The majority of our work is commissioned from the states,” explains Susie Rogers, co-owner of Mulvany & Rogers, via email. “We’ve made a copy of the London house where a U.S. client lived while he was seconded to London. His children were born there, and he wanted to remember the happy times on his return to the U.S.”
She says that prices vary, but start at 60,000 pounds for bespoke work. The firm keeps a waiting list, which can range from 9 months to three years.
A Celebration of Architecture
Timothy Richards makes miniature models, too, viewing them as sculptures via an approach he considers lyrical, even poetic. “When you pour that plaster in, you have to let the material go, just to do its magic. I am at the behest of the materials,” Richards says via phone from his studio near Bath. These aren’t simply doll house-like miniatures, he stresses. They are stand-alone artworks.
“I always say you can make great models out of great buildings,” says Richards. “They’re avenues—funnels—into this wonderful world of architecture and what buildings mean to us. They’re a celebration of architecture.”
Bespoke commissions contribute from 45 percent to 50 percent of his business. Ideally, Richards spends about six months on each piece, with prices starting at 8,000 pounds. He works in styrene and other materials, building scale models by hand. (Like the Paisley brothers, he was obsessed with Airfix models as a child). Richards has produced everything from the façade of a house on London’s Hampstead Heath to a tabletop model of one of England’s few Tudor-era palaces that remains a private home. Rather than simply reproduce this building, he added period details to the landscape around it: a Henry VIII-like king and his procession approaching from one side and a hunt chasing stags on the other.
That all these model makers are based in Britain, is less a coincidence than a legacy of history. Arguably, the most impressive collection of small-scale architectural replicas in the world is contained in London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum. The renowned 19th century architect amassed this haul, and the maquettes in his former home serve as staples for courses at architecture and design schools in the U.K. Most were made for Soane by French artisans Jean-Pierre and François Fouquet—Regency-era Chisel & Mouse, if you will—who earned widespread accolades for the intricacy of their miniatures.
The Fouquets kept their plasterworking technique, which allowed them to execute in such detail, such a closely guarded secret that after they died, it became almost impossible to create such precise, small-scale replicas in plaster. Modern techniques such as computer-aided design have overcome this two-century impasse.
Indeed, the Soane connection inspired Manhattan lawyer David Stutzman. Passionate about architecture, he made a pilgrimage to the museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a visit to London and was captivated by the plaster models. Stutzman and his husband had just bought and restored a townhouse on Bleecker Street, returning the façade to its 1850s heyday.
“I thought the idea of having a model of my house was such a wonderful hearkening back,” Stutzman says by phone from his office, where he keeps the Chisel & Mouse-produced replica on a book case, positioned to face due west, just as the house does. “The rendering was so detailed—the cornice, the lintels on the brickwork. There’s this really beautiful blood-red door on our house, and we wanted that to show up, too.”
In the ultimate accolade, the Paisley brothers added his bespoke design to Chisel & Mouse’s catalog. For $270, you can snap up a copy of Stuzman’s home, too.