27 April 2011
Claire Packer spoke to miniature craftsman Paul Wells ahead of the Kensington Dollshouse Festival held 13th-15th May. ...
Claire Packer spoke to miniature craftsman Paul Wells ahead of the Kensington Dollshouse Festival due to be held 13th-15th May, Kensington Town Hall, London, W8.
How long have you been modelling now?
I left university with a model making degree in 1992. I left university in the July and started in the October. A lot of model makers end up working on their own unless they want to work in London. I didn’t really want to do that – I’m close enough to pick up work from London but I don’t have to live there! I left school at 16 and then went to the local art college and did a two-year general art and design course; a BTEC, national diploma. I made a couple of models on the course and one of my tutors said to me: ‘do you know there is a model making degree?’ It turned out there were two or three degree courses in the country so I went and did one of those. In my final year I specialized in classical architecture.
There are probably only half a dozen of us in the country who make models in this sort-of detail. Most architectural model makers mostly make planning models – the white block models. You’ve got to be able to read drawings but you don’t have to have the historical background. Putting the two together is where I fit in. I do a look of work with historic building consultants and archeologists because they know I can fill in the missing pieces, which is good!
What is your favourite era to make models of?
I don’t know if I really have a favourite era… There are certain projects that I’d love to make. I love medieval Venice and Florence – probably the medieval period full stop. I studied history a lot at school and perhaps if I wasn’t a model maker I would have gone in that direction!
The side I enjoy most about the job is recreating buildings that don’t exist anymore and telling that story to people. It’s quite interesting as well because it always causes arguments: you get one historian who thinks one thing and another who thinks something else. Somewhere in the middle of usually got to keep them both happy!
Could you put a number to how many models you’ve made?
That’s difficult actually. I have a record of everything I’ve everything I’ve ever done but I’d say about 50 pieces a year so, over 18 years, about 1,000. That’s for collectors. There’s all the architectural models that I don’t really count which come into that as well. They tend to be used and then thrown away so I don’t really count them as ‘long-term’. Over 1,000 – that’s quite scary! I’ve never really thought about that before.
How many projects do you normally have on the go at any one time?
I’ve got seven or eight in the studio at the moment. Usually it’s lower than that, I prefer about three or four. It really depends on the overlap. For example, this bronze I’m making for Southampton Council has to be here for a long time just because of the nature of the process that’s involved with the foundries and the casting. Some models can be here for a year plus. Other things are gone in two days. It really varies. An architect will often ring up and say: ‘we need a sketch model by Friday’. Collectors tend to be in not so much of a hurry. They would prefer it to be right. Collectors’ pieces have a lot more detail than the architectural ones which are quite fast to produce.
Do you have a ‘busy’ period?
Springtime is the busiest purely because the Kensington Dollshouse Festival is coming up. Unfortunately for me, I do the Museums & Heritage Show which is a great show but is the four days immediately before the Kensington show! The timing could be better! This time of year is always hard because I’m making sample pieces as well as models I’m taking to the show. You have to take something new to the show and even if you start it a year in advance it will only get finished in the last couple of weeks!
Do people buy your models at Kensingon?
My show pieces are always for sale. I’m at the top end along with a couple of other people because we only really sell on a commission basis because our work is so specialist. The chances of someone wanting my show piece is usually about 50:50. Selling it is not really what it’s there for, though. It’s really there just to show what is possible. Generally a client will see it and then say: ‘can you make me a house designed on my house?’
Several years in a row I’ve had no finished pieces ready so I’ve had to make something especially for it to put on the stand. By ‘finished pieces’ I mean commissioned work. Most of my collectors who have commissioned a piece will be very happy to show it and exhibit it, but the chances of the timing be right for the show is very slow. It’s usually a month early or a month late. If it’s a month early the client usually wants it straight away, which is fine. Unfortunately, it does mean that people who go to the show never see my best work!
Do your dollshouse clients have models for sentimental reasons?
Some do. My client in Norfolk made a video of her house and its set on Christmas Eve 1922. She tells a story of the house – everything in the house is in it for a reason and has some history behind it. It’s her way of designing it, if you like.
The other extreme to that is a client in New York who is just generally an art collector who also likes miniature architecture as well as paintings and sculpture. When he commissions something its because he has some connection to the building; he has a particular interest with it or he’s been there. There always has to be an angle why you’re building that building for him. You can’t pigeonhole a collector.
Do you have a favourite model that you’ve made?
That’s tricky – I think the current one is always the favourite. It’s a very intensive way to make a living. In 1992, when I started, I said that if I got to a point where I stopped enjoying it, I would stop doing it. I don’t like the business side that much: I’m there to make things. While that’s good, with each model you have to learn something new about the model making process. If you’re not improving as a model maker all the time that’s, for me, when the enjoyment would disappear. You do get odd projects you don’t enjoy because the style of the building might not be to your taste. There is always some aspect that redeems it, though. Some sort of challenge to create a certain finish, etc.
What are your models normally made out of it?
Regarding the dollshouses they tend to have a wooden carcass, generally MDF. After that anything goes – it’s true Blue Peter style! Because of my architectural background I probably use a lot more modern, high-tech materials than some people. The people who do it part-time tend to use traditional woods and plaster, that kind of thing. I have access to certain materials that can be quite dangerous: I use extraction equipment, resin casting, silicon moulds and brass etchings. It really does vary on job to job, though. There are certain materials you use for certain real materials, if that makes sense! I tend to base the construction of the building on whether its brick, plaster or timber framed.
Do you have moving features on any of your models?
Yes, some do, particular models for museums. Funnily enough, museums tend to want interactive features more than collectors. There are collectors who want everything to be static because they appreciate the model for what it is. Most of those tend to be small models which are in glass cabinets anyway.
On the dollhouse side there has been a moving water wheel and real smoke from chimneys. The strangest request was a ghost at the top of the stairs for a Scrooge house. We ended up painting it on to a cut out of clear acrylic and backlighting it.
On the museum side about 60-70% has some kind of feature. We’ve just finished making a model of the folding roof at Wimbledon. It’s on a panel on a wall over a 40in LCD screen that has a computer-generated graphic of a tennis match and the crowd viewed from above. The 3D built is built over the top of the screen with a fully operative folding model over the roof. Outside the case there is a touch screen and you answer questions about how the roof works. If you get it right the roof closes and you get a round of applause. If you get it wrong the graphics on the screen show it raining and it becomes a flood. Little rubber ducks pop up! Models and the design and computer side are really starting to merge together.
How would I commission a model?
Most people who approach me generally have a fairly firm idea of what they’d like. If it’s an architect then obviously they have a set design in mind. They just choose a scale and so on, give them a price and off we go. If it’s a collector it’s more of an involved process, which is great. Some of my clients will research for a year. They’ll approach me and say: ‘I’d like something art deco and this in the space I’ve got’. They go away and do some research and then a year later an envelope drops through the door after you’ve forgotten all about it!
Generally speaking, the designs tend to change quite a lot. I’d like to believe that if a collector comes to me to make a dollshouse, it’s not just about giving them a dollshouse. They should get just as much enjoyment out of the process as out of the finished item. Quite often many of the dollhouses will end up having extensions added later because they do evolve. People tend to come to you with an idea and then they realise what you can do and it’s usually more than they had an imagined. That is the design process, that is the model maker’s job at the end of the day.
Top left: 1/12 scale dollshouse facade
Bottom right: 1/200 scale Fort Hommet, Guernsey
Copyright belongs to Paul Wells.