The tiniest home in our downsizing special tells its owner’s life story
For her 60th birthday, Nora West’s children retrieved a beloved old doll’s house made for her third birthday and turned it into a memoir of her life. Each of the four main rooms represents a significant era: the frou-frou Laura Ashley bedroom is her childhood home in Northamptonshire, England; the pop art, psychedelic bedsit harks back to her art school days in London; the country-style kitchen with its Aga echoes her early mothering days at Northleach in the Cotswolds; and the sitting room with the tapa cloth and the jandals she always leaves by the sofa is her life in New Zealand from 1983 on. That room also includes a plastic dog donated by her grandson to represent her dog Hector.
The “my life as a doll’s house” project was spearheaded by daughter Amy, a film studies lecturer at the University of Auckland. She wrote to family and friends around the world, asking for ideas and contributions, and received such treasures as original family photos, a miniature Humpty Dumpty and the green wellies that once lived in the Gloucestershire hall.
Nora’s three other children were also press-ganged into helping. Henry rebuilt the whole doll’s house, Holly was in charge of the exterior and floorboards and Dinah smuggled the house back to Auckland and modelled a Fimo beer-drinking mermaid to sit in the bath. (Nora is a Pisces.)
The extraordinary accuracy of detail extends right down to reproductions of actual wallpaper, a miniature copy of the Guardian Weekly and a tiny version of a padded appliqué wall hanging Nora once sent to an English friend. In the Grey Lynn sitting room a table is set for a birthday tea, complete with a birthday cake with the number 60 on it.
A house is the perfect symbol for Nora. As a child, while other girls played with dolls, she played houses and has never stopped since. She admits she’s forever moving and setting up house. It’s a process she loves. When NZ House & Garden meets her in her Grey Lynn home, she is packing for a move to Waiheke Island. She has lived there before and insists she never intends to move on again. But then, she admits, she has said that before.
In fact, the doll’s house was retrieved from under a house on Waiheke Island, where it had deteriorated enormously. Already the repaired house has had quite a life. It has enjoyed an official Open Home party on April Fool’s Day, to which two strangers turned up. They agreed that the property was probably a bit too small for their needs but stayed for the festivities anyway. It’s also had a showing at a gallery in Auckland.
Four years on, the house has acquired more and more miniature memories. Nora thinks she may yet add an artist’s studio to the mix and there are some miniature bricks that are waiting to be built into an outdoor toilet.
Her strong identification with houses reminds Nora of a Thurber cartoon called “Woman as a House”, featuring a typically timid Thurber man walking up to the doorstep of a house that has taken the shape of an enormous, growling woman. Not that Nora is in the least bit growly. She’s far too cheery and chatty for that.
But the cultural references don’t end there. The principal character in Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House, she points out, is called Nora. Spooky.
When Nora moves she will be taking with her a lifetime’s collection of art from friends and acquaintances as well as her own textile works, some embroidered and others crafted with wood, wiring and cloth. She currently sells bags made from coffee sacks. Wherever these works are, says Nora, she feels at home.
And of course the doll’s house will be moving back to Waiheke too, although Nora swears it will never again suffer the indignity of living under a house. This time it will be centre stage, in the hall.
Story: Yvonne van Dongen
Photographs: Jane Ussher