Small pleasures: the joy of miniaturization

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


It starts with babies. Tiny people with tiny ears, tiny noses, and tiny toes. Tiny hats and shoes follow, and for some reason these ordinary things, shrunken down to impossible proportions, give us a big swell of joy.

Kids get bigger, but the miniaturization continues. Toy cars, soldiers, and animals fill our days, all perfect scale models of the real things. Dollhouses — entire worlds in miniature — involve us in hours of joyful play. And I don’t know if it’s because tiny things remind us of these toys and the freedom of childhood, or whether we have a purely visceral reaction to their comical scale, but it does seem that many miniatures have a joyful quality to them and we often seek to miniaturize things even in the adult world.

Think about cupcakes, a craze you’d have to live under a rock not to have noticed. In recent years these small doses of sweetness have been in such high demand by adults, they seem to be capable of keeping entire blocks of the West Village economically afloat. Fruit is getting smaller too. Clementines and cherry tomatoes have been around awhile, but there’s been a growing prevalence of those tiny apples and pears, and now apricots (which already seemed pretty tiny to me) have shrunken into candycots, and watermelons have gotten “personal-sized.”

There’s a pragmatic rationale for small urban cars, but it doesn’t explain why drivers of the Mini Cooper and the Smart car always seem so smiley. We also find miniatures associated with special occasions known to be joyous, such as Christmas ornaments, souvenirs of famous places, and those bride-and-groom caketop miniatures without which any wedding would surely be incomplete. These “tiny worlds” designed and sold on Etsy by Amy Powers seem take a cue from these inspirations, trying to distill moments of joy into something small, pure, and permanent.


Miniatures are like suggestions of another world, a world of a different scale, but often also a world of a different time or place. Like these miniature tuk-tuks (which, even at life-size, are already miniatures) ensconced in the lighting fixtures of New York Thai restaurant (top photo), they bring distant memories or dreams into a concrete physicality. They also work on a purely visceral level, transforming the world around them in powerful ways. These lamps would look quite ordinary, but the mini tuk-tuks make them look enormous, like giant soap bubbles in comparison. Much the way our hands look giant when held palm-to-palm with a child’s, or a Great Dane looks like horse next to a toy poodle, our world reveals itself to us in new ways in the presence of an out-of-scale element. There’s a transcendence in that feeling that the world is larger than life, or in feeling like we’ve become kids again.

July 15th, 2009


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    Discussion (1 Comment)

  1. Lisa on July 16, 2009

    Perhaps this explains why I was practically squealing with excitement when I made a Fairy Garden in a container pot at work last week. You can see my photo and blog post here:
    And the clothespin doll I made at a tea-and-workshop event. Photo here:

    When my friend takes her Great Dane and Jack Russell for walks, it’s always a humorous and entertaining sight!

    Miniatures are definitely on my joy-meter!!!


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